The Time-to-Degree Conundrum

Leonard Cassuto | October 16, 2011 | Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education |Original Article 

“Graduate students take longer and longer to finish because we don’t reward quick finishers with academic jobs. In fact, we do quite the opposite.”

It is a complex situation for a graduate student. On the one hand, you want to get your degree and get on with the business of working in your area. On the other hand, you want to get the job but you know that it’s not going to happen if there’s not enough work products by the time you graduate. What do you do? Do you finish quicker but risk not getting a job because you don’t have enough items to present in your job packages or do you delay finishing so that you have enough to present and increase your chances of landing that dream job?

Answering these questions are personal and each graduate student would need to decide what is more important given the circumstances. The author of the article points out that the system that graduate students aspire to join lean heavily towards slow finishers even though graduate schools want their students to finish quickly. The graduate schools also find themselves in a similar predicament as their graduate students. Do they want their students to be quick finishers or slow finishers? The quick finishers cost less for sure, but who’s going to pick up the additional teaching and research assistantships that helps the faculty to be successful? The slow finishers may cost more to maintain, but they might provide more reward in the long run. Who knows?!

On a personal note, I’m naturally a quick finisher. I intend to finish sooner rather than later for a variety of reasons.

Reason 1: I can’t afford to be a slow finisher
If you started graduate school with limited funds, and spend a long time getting your degree eventually the reality and the fantasy will meet. Together they’ll realize that they could co-exist but neither is happy with the balance. Fantasy wants to take over and just enjoy the pleasure of life with little concern for living in the world according to available means. Reality doesn’t want Fantasy to take over and wants to make sure that living in the world is doable and achievable even if Fantasy doesn’t pay attention. Thus, the two constantly struggle for control. The longer it takes to finish the louder Reality gets. Occasionally, Fantasy perks up and says, “You see! We are awesome! We’re changing the world! We can do this!” Reality acknowledges this but on days when it’s cloudy outside, Reality says, “I don’t know how long we can do this. I’m getting tired.” Fantasy acknowledges this and sometimes steps back and let Reality take hold and bring things back into balance. This struggle continues but eventually a balance is achieved via finishing. Starting the next phase of life, Fantasy and Reality agree to disagree and revert back to their own domains with hopes of not struggling for control as often.


Reason 2: If I finish sooner, I will earn more and be in less debt. 
This is just a logical approach if you’re doing the program full-time and not working. By going to school full-time and not working, your only means of supporting yourself is dependent on funding and loans. If you get no funding, then its all out-of-pocket, which translates into major debt. (Of course, those that have patrons or angels or a money tree are exempt.) If it takes me four years to finish my degree and another person six or more years to finish the degree, it means that I will be in the workforce for a couple or more years before my peer. As a result, I will earn a salary that is more than what a graduate student earns, which means that my earning potential will go up within those years that my peer is still in graduate school. It also means that I will stop going into debt and start digging myself out of it, considering I have no patron, angel or money tree.


Reason 3: Finishing sooner means being an expert in my field sooner.
Many people have disagreed with me on this, but I do believe that it is better to be an assistant professor doing research than a graduate student doing research. The sooner you’re able to be an assistant professor, the sooner your research will translate into your own particular expertise. Although the work may be identical, the two roles provide different experiences and different rewards. As a graduate student doing research, the bottom line is that you are a student and you still have to achieve the PhD, and land the job. The article emphasizes that the longer you are a graduate student the better your chances of landing the job because your research output will be more than your peers that finished sooner. However, it also means similar work as an assistant professor with little of the rewards. As an assistant professor doing research, the bottom line is that it is your job and the only thing you’re seeking to achieve is tenure, which is a whole other story. The concerns as an assistant professor are different, you’ve already achieved the PhD so people know that you can do it, you’ve already done research so people know that you’re capable of the work, and you’ve already landed the job so that people know that you are an expert in your area. Thus, the assistant professor and graduate student doing research means that one is already recognized as an expert and one is trying to be recognized. In addition, the sooner you’re in the professoriate, the sooner you learn the details of being a professor, which is not something that is currently being taught to graduate students.


Reason 4: Infinity: Time waits for no one.
Someone, I can’t remember who right now, said that you should figure out what you want to do and get on with it! Life continues on whether you’re a quick or slow finisher but if what you want to do is beyond being a graduate student, then you should get to it sooner rather than later because once you get there you’ll realized that your time is limited. For some, being a student is a big part of the dream, but for others being a student is a process of getting to the dream. Depending on your life experience, there comes a moment when you realize that there just is not enough time to do all that you aspire to do. Time goes rapidly or slows down some days, weeks, months, and years, but it waits for no one. It will continue to move forward and you will go with it whether you intend to or not. It is the natural order of things. Thus, it is best to make the most of the time you’ve got.


Quick finishers may not be rewarded in the same way as slow finishers in the acadmic world, but there are good reasons for finishing sooner rather than later.  In a future world, we might reward quick finishers with good academic jobs so we don’t lose them.

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