You’re starting your fifth year, nags that annoying inner voice. Everyone you know is getting married and has started their real lives and is becoming a wonderfully successful paragon of twenty-something-hood and you’re still here! Doesn’t that bother you?

Well, yes, a bit, but it takes longer than that to get a Ph.D., and I knew that going in, but still – You’re STILL here!  Then the inner voice shakes its head and asks, mockingly, isn’t it simply dreadful to be you?

Well, no; no, it’s not. But fifth year is the point at which friends and relatives, some of whom may not be too clear on the timeline of your Doctor of Philosophy, begin to wonder, more than ever before, why you haven’t graduated yet. “Haven’t you been in school for four years now?” they’ll ask. “That should be more than enough time to get a degree in something – what have you been doing all this time?” Okay, sure. They just don’t understand. But still, there’s that voice, that voice again, that persistent voice that murmurs, What am I doing?

At this stage, it’s very difficult not to compare your progress – in life, much less in your own program – against other people’s successes, those of scientists and non-scientists alike. And truthfully, we all feel that frustration. We all watch others’ lives progress on Facebook and wonder, “Why isn’t that me?”. Recently, however, I have taken to heart some new ways of framing my experience, ways that center on my own context – the Ph.D. context – rather than on the post-college lives of others. I’ll share them here in the hope that they may help you reframe your experience, too.

Time is a matter of perspective.
I happily admit to reading one of the cleverest, nerdiest, and most consistently emotive stick-figure comics on the whole of the Interwebs: Randall Munroe’s XKCD. The comic regularly features absurd (though accurate) numerical framings of everyday concepts. I love these nutty numbers. And if you’re like me – i.e., analytically-minded – then you probably also love numbers. So let’s take comfort in a handful of fun statistics about graduate school:

By the time we start our fifth years, we’ll have been graduate students:

  • Long enough to perform 2,190 back-to-back renditions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle
  • Approximately 47 times longer than William Henry Harrison’s presidential term
  • Less than half the time required for an elephant to reach sexual maturity
  • Less than 5% the duration of the Brisbane pitch drop experiment
  • Less than 0.000000029% the current estimated age of the universe

By these metrics, I’d say we’re doing all right!

More seriously, everyone’s timeline is different. Everyone’s project is different. And even though we’re all working toward the same general goal – the Degree – everyone’s priorities are different; we all go about this process in slightly different ways. It’s not always easy to figure out the appropriate perspective, except to say this: build in time for the things that make you happy, and for whatever makes you laugh – even if that’s just a regular visit to a delightfully nerdy comic strip, or omelettes and mimosas with friends on a Saturday morning when you could be in the lab.

Today is Friday.
I wish I could claim this brilliant analogy were mine, but in this case all credit, honor, and offers of homemade cookies go to my classmate, Lauren. Her thoughts on this stage of graduate school really stuck with me when she explained them recently, and I keep coming back to them. To paraphrase:

“Think of your graduate school experience as days of the week; each year represents a different day. Monday can be tough, but you’re probably rested and excited for things to get going. Tuesday, you’ve got Monday under your belt, but maybe you’re realizing how much of the week still remains; by Wednesday, your third year, it may be starting to feel like the longest week you’ve ever had. But by this analogy, your fifth year is Friday; and right now, it’s Friday morning, and soon it’ll be time to go home. For some people, maybe your week will be over in just a few short hours! But you know, there are some people who go into lab on Saturdays; there are even some who go into lab on Sundays, and that’s okay. That’s graduate school. But for now, today – today is Friday.”


Take heart, then, friends, because it’s Friday. Your weekend – whenever it begins – has nearly come.

And here is my promise, to myself and to you: by Sunday, at the latest, we’ll all answer to “Doctor”, and then we’ll start Monday together.