PhD-Level Work

I was reading FemaleScienceProfessor’s blog today, where she discusses how much time a grad student should work on their thesis. There were a lot of interesting comments, and I highly suggest reading it.

In my mind, it’s not the amount of time one works, but how efficiently they use that time. We all know someone who puts in long days but gets nothing done because they spend half the time on Facebook or MSN Messenger. We also know other people who are in the lab 5 hours a day and finish their degree early. Most people probably fall between the two extremes.

That discussion made me think about a related topic: how does a supervisor or advisory committee makes the decision that one’s project is enough for a PhD? There seems to be quite a difference between what passes for a PhD-level project, even in the same lab. DH’s previous lab is great example of this:

His PhD project was to design and build a new type of “bicycle”. He started from scratch, learned the theory, designed each part of the bicyle, built each part, put the whole thing together AND made sure it worked.

Another student in the same lab is supposed to design and build a new pedal for the bicycle. That’s it. It doesn’t even have to work. They both started at the same time, and DH defended his PhD a year ago…the other student is still slogging a long with no end in sight. How do these two projects warrant the same degree?

I understand that, in a lot of cases, it’s like comparing apples to oranges: maybe someone has a smaller project but is studying it more in depth, or maybe another has a crap load of data and is just doing simple analysis on all of it. It all depends what the point of the project is, I suppose.

However, in some instances, it seems that some students definitely have a lot more work to do in order to get the same degree in the end. Is this because the advisory committee, or whoever it was to okay the project, wanted that much work, or is it the student who adds the work themselves?

What happened in your PhD? Did you find the amount of work you did was comparable to those around you? Did the amount of work expected for your project change at some point?


Comments on: "PhD-Level Work" (3)

  1. It’s very hard…I think in the case of the “bicycle” analogy, as a student you have to consider whether the bicycle is decomposable into multiple distinct parts, like the drivetrain, the steering, etc. such that in the end, if it comes down to it, you can still call it a thesis even if it isn’t the completion of your vision – it’s still the completion of interesting work.I’m a late-term grad student like you, and I feel like the amount of work done can be very different between students, but also, the process can have been different too – what about the guy who is trying to come up with the pedal, but because of unforeseen oddities cannot nail down any interesting results? And then spends a long time to figure out some new constraints for the problem of building a pedal – and then comes up with a new model for a pedal, but never actually comes up with a pedal? At first glance it doesn’t seem like he did a lot, but maybe he did.So it’s hard to say.But your posts are thought-provoking and keep it up!


  2. PD, you make a great point. We don’t necessarily get to see what others are really working on throughout their degree, just the end product. That could be deceiving.For me, I think my projects are really simple, and so to compensate I through a ton of data at the problem. Other people would only use a small data set but analyze it in a multitude of ways.


  3. This has bothered me too, especially when I hear about people who spend a year writing a literature review and get a Masters for it while I slaved for two years to do mine and to get ACTAUL results out of ACTUAL data. (No, I’m not bitter…why do you ask? ;))I don’t really know where to lay the blame for it…ultimately, I’d say it’s on the department for not enforcing consistent standards. But, it’s true that we can never REALLY know exactly what everyone’s work consists of. Academia is way too complicated, I’m glad I’ll be out of it in 1.5 weeks!


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