echod

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When do you think is a good time to talk about expectations for graduation with one's thesis advisor? After passing the prelims? When writing the first paper? After publishing the first paper? Thanks a lot.
 
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I discussed my timeline including graduation my first week in the lab. It is always good to lay out a timeline. It helps keep you and your advisor on track. Dates can always be adjusted but having specific goals in mind is always a good idea. My PI sat me down within 3 days of joining the lab to discuss goals and a timeline. It couldn't have worked out better and I start residency in June.
 

StIGMA

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I discuss this as soon as I meet the PI to discuss summer rotations. I do not plan to stop reminding them at any point of my goals, and I fully expect them to be compliant with my goals (as long as I hit the minimum expectations). I pair this with advice of the MSTP directors who have a knowledge of how the PI handles his/her students. If the PI hints hints that they dont do a 3-3.5 year PhD or has a bad history of graduation times with students, I am not considering them.
 

sluox

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Ideally, discussion of graduation should occur at the first committee meeting (and that will be your prelim if the topic of prelim is your thesis topic), if not earlier. There is a saying in clinical medicine, "discharge planning begins at the time of admission," and it's equally applicable to the PhD candidate. :smuggrin:

A good way, I think, to begin this discussion is to be proactive and organized. The way I did it was at the first thesis committee meeting I handed out a sheet to everyone on the committee, outlining the main goals and specific aims in bullets, then a tentative timeline to graduation (appx 2-3 years). In subsequent meetings the same timeline, with some adjustments, was handed out again and again to reinforce this into every faculty's head. Though they had many objections scientifically, no revision of the timeline per se was ever attempted--and I suspect that people on the committee figured that the timeline was not written by me but by my adviser, while my adviser thought it was outlined by someone other official in the MDPhD program. The more formal the better, IMHO.

Committees are highly variable. My committee was very amenable for me to set my own pace, which resulted in a "quick" PhD, but the paper was stuck in limbo for a LONG time, which I think affected my residency application in a negative way. For a variety of reasons, however, I did not want to stay for another year, and in the end everything turned out fine. Sometimes committees can be very unfriendly. You have to be firm but nimble. Know your own bottom line. Remember everything's negotiable...also remember there is no reason for faculty members to hold you back, especially if you are going into a field for primarily clinical reasons, and your PhD is unrelated, and there is little chance that your paths will intersect again. Often the harder your push the more antagonistic people become. You have to spin it such that they feel like they are on your side, even though you are simply manipulating them to do what you want them to do. Often used techniques include evoking competitors, pitting one project against another (i.e. you want me to do this impossible experiment, and I don't want to do it, but perhaps instead of killing myself I can help this other postdoc to do these other experiments, and he can get a paper in. Wouldn't that be a win-win? Of course I'll only do this if you let me out.), writing a manuscript (this one often works, because even if you don't have everything, if the paper is written it FEELS like you've done a lot), presenting your work as much as possible at conferences, etc.

The idea is to make it SEEM as if you've done a lot, even when you haven't or couldn't. You want to start this campaign as early and as comprehensively as possible. When you hit a snag make sure to outline all the possible reasons and ways in which these reasons can be addressed. You don't actually have to do any of it.

This is not to say though that you shouldn't love your science. I think counting an adviser out for the fact that they usually don't graduate in 3.5 yrs can be silly, especially if the topic that you are interested in can't be done in a fast way. If you think it's a breakthrough but will take 5 yrs, you should probably just push through and do it. But given that you like your project and things are going in generally a good way, spin becomes absolutely essential. Plus it'll only become more and more essential if you want to continue this path as you sell your future projects to a plethora of study sections, journal editors, foundation directors, and most importantly your employees and colleagues in the community. A lot of great scientists are buried in obscurity because of the lack of these skills. Might as well start. And these skills are equally applicable in clinical medicine.
 
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Shifty B

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If the PI hints hints that they dont do a 3-3.5 year PhD or has a bad history of graduation times with students, I am not considering them.
I agree with all the other statements on this thread, but this one is only half true. If a PI has a history of prolonged graduation times, i.e. a majority of people leaving in 6-7 years, then I'd recommend staying away. Don't think that you're going to be the guy who finishes faster than all the others because you're better, faster, whatever.

However, there is a certain value to a PI who can frankly tell you that you might be there for 4-5 years. This person likely has a good grip on reality, because it could realistically take that long. I would trust this person much more than someone who says, "Oh, yea, don't worry about it, I think we can get you out in 3 years or so." That statement and $3.50 can get you a cup of coffee.

I do encourage everyone to engage in a dialogue with their PIs and committees as soon as possible about this though. Have clear communication with your PI about what is expected from you during your PhD and set down clear goals for how you intend to accomplish them. Then, frequently revisit your goals and update your progress so you and everyone else knows where you stand.

One final piece of advice: don't think that you're doing yourself a favor by putting soft faculty that are easy to win over on your committee. In fact, I recommend the opposite and recommend putting a 900 pound gorilla on your committee. By this, I mean someone on your committee who is more powerful than your PI (department head, prominent elder scientist, you get the drift). Often, it can come down to your PI being the one hold-out keeping you in the lab. Your PI will have a vested interest in keeping you in the lab because as a senior student you will be the most productive member of the lab and publishing the most papers. By having an external force that is strong enough, you can have someone to step in and say "enough is enough", getting you out of the lab.
 

StIGMA

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I agree, I was merely posting what I am doing and plan on continuing. In my field, that timeframe is feasible. Your other points are completely valid. That statement of not allowing a 3-3.5 year PhD was not in reference to a PI who is honest and says thing may take longer or about a PI who is clearly untrustworthy. I meant a PI who bluntly tells you he/she thinks 4 years is the minimum commitment (which a PI told me after I pressed him).
 
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RxnMan

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When do you think is a good time to talk about expectations for graduation with one's thesis advisor? After passing the prelims? When writing the first paper? After publishing the first paper? Thanks a lot.
The day you agree to work in their lab.

Seriously. Communicating your goals and expectations from the outset will make things easier.
 
Nov 7, 2009
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I agree. Track record is key. I did my PhD with a new PI but I had done enough research prior to med school to know he had some good projects in the same field. Another key...always have multiple projects to start. A good PI will give you both a high and low hanging fruit project. If the potential "nature paper project" doesn't work out, you should always have another one going on the back burner. Steer clear of any PI who only has one "really cool" project for you. I had 3 projects going my first year. I dropped one of them after the first year, one after the second and ended up finishing in just over 3 years for a total of 7 with some great papers. If I had only been given one of the two I dropped, I'd probably still be in the lab. Another grad student who came in after me took the first one in a different direction and is about to finish now.


I discuss this as soon as I meet the PI to discuss summer rotations. I do not plan to stop reminding them at any point of my goals, and I fully expect them to be compliant with my goals (as long as I hit the minimum expectations). I pair this with advice of the MSTP directors who have a knowledge of how the PI handles his/her students. If the PI hints hints that they dont do a 3-3.5 year PhD or has a bad history of graduation times with students, I am not considering them.