Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How long did it take to get a Ph.D. in chemistry in the nineties?

The Survey of Earned Doctorates is a wonderful thing; it's chock-full of interesting data and well-regarded. Paula Stephan has noted that thesis students tend to get the survey with their graduating paperwork, and so they're tricked into filling out the National Science Foundation's survey and thinking that it's required to graduate (it's not.) The response rate is, therefore, quite high.

For the years 1994 through 2000, I've listed below the both the median total time-to-degree and the median registered time-to-degree* for doctoral students in chemistry. Sadly, there does not appear to be a breakdown for subfields in chemistry:

(year): (total time-to-degree)/(registered time-to-degree)

1994: 7.3/6.0
1995: 7.4/6.2
1996: 7.4/6.1
1997: 6.9/6.0
1998: 6.8/6.0
1999: 6.9/6.0
2000: 7.0/6.0

I'll be looking into the eighties and the oughts soon. I note that, for 2011, median time-to-degree was 6.9 years, with a registered time-to-degree of 6.0 years.

*According to NSF's definitions: TTD: total elapsed time from completion of the baccalaureate to the doctorate (total time to degree), RTD: time in graduate school less reported periods of nonenrollment (registered time to degree)


  1. Heck, I knew a guy who took 12 years to get his pHD (in Molecular Biology)at MIT. He is the smartest guy I know, he used to win (#1) Math and Physics state-wide competitions in the state of CA.

    What I learned: If bad shit can happen to him in his science career,

  2. How does this study handle the ambiguity around graduation dates? I defended in January, was enrolled through the winter/spring semester ending in April, and technically received my PhD at the end of the summer term in August. So you could say it took me anywhere from 5 years and 5 months to six years, depending on your perspective.

    1. First, you were probably given this survey to fill out when you were *actually* graduating from your university, i.e. the university itself was filling out paperwork to the registrar, asking you for full name for the graduation program, etc.

      Second, the SED itself has language... let me look for it...

    2. Here's the questionnaire -- see page 3, and you'll know you would have answered it:

    3. Given that wording, I would have filled out 6.0 years, even though the reality was by that point I had finished my PhD program seven months prior.

      When I defended at 5.5 years, I seemed to be right in the middle of the pack for my cohort. Only one person I can think of defended during the fifth year (4.x years to finish), and a whole wave of us defended in the late fall or early winter of year six (5.x years). This was circa 2005/6. Given the definitions in the SED, it seems most of us would have been rounded up to 6 years.

  3. Is TTD really a useful parameter? It seems misleading, as if it discounts valuable (marketable) experience and training outside of academia.


  4. I don't know - I was pretty much the last to defend in my year and it was 4 years and 9 months. But. I defended a week before the commencement, past the deadline for that year, so my diploma was issued more than a year after my defense.

  5. I defended at the end of 1994 and vaguely remember taking the survey when I went to turn in my thesis (Dec.), not when I actually received my diploma (June)
    At the time, 4-5 years was pretty typical for organometallic and inorganic chemists at MIT. I was one of the first to defend my year (of the inorganic chemists) but most of us defended in the space of a few weeks, so we were all 4 1/2 years (or 4 1/4 from time starting at MIT). Now 5 years seems to be the norm in my former group.

    1. Interesting. I'll have to look up the relevant passage in "How Economics Shapes Science" to see what exactly Paula Stephan said...

  6. I find the numbers ridiculous. Our school would stop paying you after 5 years, and automatically terminate students after 7. The place where I did my postdoc was exactly the same. There was always talk about how this or that advisor (usually featuring word bio on his office doors) would force his students to do full 6, but on average you were expected to be done in 4 and a half.

  7. Sadly it is now typical at my old department to have students defend in a somewhat "timely manner" before there work is published simply to improve these stats. After defending, students stay on in their former laboratories paid as postdocs or part-time minimum wage workers depending on how big an asshole there advisor is.

  8. Huh, I've never seen that survey and certainly never filled it out when I graduated (2000) but the numbers seem slightly high in my experience.

    I was the first one up from my year and did it in 4 1/2 but most everyone was done by 5 1/2. Our dept would usually cut you off after 6 and terminate you after 7 unless there were really special circumstances.


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