“Oh, you’re still in school?” I don’t think any doctoral student can refrain from cringing at this question. Friends, relatives, and airplane seatmates unfamiliar with the PhD process don’t always understand how unbounded it can be: it takes as long as it takes to get through coursework, pass a set of rigorous qualifying exams, draw up a dissertation prospectus and have it approved, conduct the necessary research, and write the dissertation. Some people pass through these five stages quickly, while others require more time (like an average of nine years in the humanities). While universities do have policies meant to prevent students from lingering in any one stage for an excessive amount of time, my observation has been that those policies are usually softer in practice than they look on paper, especially if the student has personal or medical issues that require attention.
Still, I was a little surprised when I checked out the website for the PhD in Progress Podcast (created by Jason McSheene, one of the authors I now work with at GradHacker) and saw that the most recent episode was titled “12 Years a Graduate Student.” Twelve years? It’s pretty rare to meet a twelfth-year student. I was curious, so I downloaded the episode this morning and listened to Northwestern University PhD candidate Parag Gupta share the story of his twelve-year odyssey to a doctorate in mechanical engineering. (For a shorter version, see Gupta’s TEDx talk.)
Gupta begins the podcast interview by admitting that he’s going to sound “a little bit obnoxious” as he outlines his initial successes in higher education: valedictorian of his Mississippi high school, a full merit scholarship to Vanderbilt, bachelor’s and master’s of engineering degrees earned within four years, internships at both NASA and Lehman Brothers, actively courted by several doctoral programs. He was clearly moving full-steam ahead and expected that he would finish his PhD in record time.
And then he didn’t. Although Gupta doesn’t phrase it in quite these terms, what I heard is that he foundered in grad school because he was a great student, but not prepared to be the independent researcher that earning a PhD requires. He knew how to follow directions and get As—not how to design and execute his own research project.
He was also, he realized, in the wrong subfield, and decided in his third year at Northwestern to move from computational to experimental mechanics, which required him to resign a National Science Foundation fellowship and find his own source of funding. Gupta decided that he could support himself by playing poker.
This did not go well.
After turning to his father for a bailout when the poker-playing scheme failed (big time), Gupta got back on track with his graduate work … and then found himself laid low by several herniated discs in his back. He tried to continue with his dissertation research at Argonne National Laboratory, but regularly wound up lying on the floor beneath his desk in an attempt to relieve the pain he was experiencing. Another setback.
Now, it seems that Gupta is finally within sight of finishing his PhD, and he’s telling the story of his path through grad school to encourage other students to take action if they find themselves running up against some of the same difficulties he faced. Some of those are obviously unique to Gupta (the ill-advised poker career, his medical problems), while others are more general issues that grad students encounter—particularly the realization that for all his academic successes, he wasn’t actually prepared for graduate school. Gupta is especially vocal in urging grad students to take advantage of campus resources such as the counseling center, office of student life, and so forth, which often appear geared toward undergraduates but are available to aid grad students dealing with professional or personal crises as well. Again: grad schools often look hard-nosed on paper, but there are people behind those policies, and they will generally find a way to help a student in need without penalizing him/her too much.
Twelve years in a doctoral program is a long time. But Gupta describes himself as an optimistic person, and he clearly views his graduate career as a valuable learning experience in nearly every way possible (professionally, financially, personally).
Listening to his interview also helped me articulate something that I don’t think is said often enough: one of the worst things someone can ask a PhD student is, “Aren’t you done yet?” It might seem like someone is “hiding out” in grad school or avoiding “the real world,” but he or she is probably more worried than you could ever imagine about how long the PhD process is taking, and asking why they haven’t graduated yet will only stir up anxiety. Not everyone will be as comfortable speaking about their setbacks and detours as Parag Gupta is today (and it certainly doesn’t sound like he would have been as comfortable six years ago). As I wrote at the beginning, it takes as long as it takes to get a PhD, and there’s no prize for crossing the finish line first.
How long did I spend in graduate school? Six years in my PhD program (which is comparatively fast), but four years before that in what I think of as “PhD preparation” work—language study in China, a master’s degree in the US, and back to China for two more years in grad school there. It’s been exactly a decade since I graduated from college, and that entire span of time has been devoted to getting my PhD. So, yes, I have answered “Aren’t you done yet?” more times than I’d like to remember.