Today’s Wednesday ORF comes to us from prolific life-in-science chronicler Adam Ruben, writing this week at Science Careers. Ruben authors the column “Experimental Error” with some regularity and has also written the (humor) book Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. (I can’t tell you whether or not it’s a good book; I’m waiting to read it until I have my degree in hand and see how true it rings to my overall experience.)

The context.
If you’ve spent even a little time with me or with any other end-stage Ph.D. student, you’ve probably discovered one particularly radioactive line of questioning – the one you now know to avoid at any cost. You’ve learned, perhaps by hard experience, that any inquiry on this topic is strictly verboten. If you do dare to broach the question, your subject may simply be stunned that you had the chutzpah to ask at all. I’m speaking, of course, of the doctoral equivalent of Harry Potter’s Voldemort, the Question-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named: “So when are you done?”

This question really riles a lot of graduate students. But why not? one might ask. Why can’t you know? Didn’t so-and-so’s apocryphal best friend from high school finish a Ph.D. in four years? Or was that med school? Oh, wait… you’re not that kind of doctor, right? Six years is a long time, after all. You must have at least some sense of how it’ll shake out. And while yes, we do have at least that, there are a variety of reasons why graduate students a) don’t like this question and b) don’t often give a straight answer to it.

The article.
I’ve seen a number of friends post this article recently, generally paired with sentiment to the effect of “It hurts ’cause it’s true.” And while there are aspects of Adam Ruben’s “The never-ending Ph.D.” that are a little over-the-top, a lot of it seems pretty on-point to the experience that I and others have had as graduate students. Namely this: there’s a surprising degree of luck involved. We all work hard. But maybe she finds the right lab, at the right time, just as they’re well-funded and about to start a line of inquiry that yields Big Results. Maybe everything just goes right for her, and she can say with confidence that she’ll be out in five years, and can start to plan her career. Maybe he’s close to the end and suddenly lands a job, forcing an earlier defense date than what he’d otherwise schedule. On the other hand, maybe things don’t go well. Maybe he has an assay (experimental procedure) that he spends six months trying to optimize, and it still doesn’t quite work, and he has to scrap the whole thing. Maybe her thesis committee wants more papers from her than she thinks her data can reasonably make. Or, worst of all, maybe her boss doesn’t get tenure, or leaves the university to join an institute across the country, and she has to re-invent her project from afar. These varied outcomes are difficult to predict, and not always contingent upon how hard a graduate student works.

The principal challenge here, I think (and one about which I’ve written before), is that finishing a Ph.D. involves a lot of subjective benchmarks. Few graduate students will ever totally finish a project and be able to tie it up with a neat little bow; that’s why principal investigators have active labs for decades. The questions are never fully answered! That uncertainty, that long future, can be incredibly exciting – how much is left to discover! – while also being somewhat frustrating. At some point, all graduate students must simply agree to be done, whether or not the data are clean and complete. We don’t know when that experiment is going to work, and yet, we still strive for the best possible story, or we finally get amazing data after five or six or seven years of struggling to produce anything, and we graduate in a flurry of activity and fireworks.

The take home point is this: until you see your friendly neighborhood graduate student standing proudly in a tam and wizard’s robes, with a “Dr.” on a business card and a thesis proudly shelved in the department library, don’t make assumptions about when she should be done. She’ll tell you. Promise.