Dear Boss: I Want to Graduate. Let’s Talk.

Dear Dora: I want to graduateDear Dora,

What’s the best way to get the conversation going about graduation dates with your PI?

– Henry, grad student


Dear Henry,

Thank you for asking this very relevant question. Many students are under the impression that they need to have reached certain milestones before they can have the “talk” (i.e. when to graduate) with their PI. In fact, it’s never too early to start that conversation. A friend of mine received graduate school funding for four years. So, on his first day he sat down with his supervisor to discuss how to design a PhD-level project that could be completed in four years. He met periodically with his PI to make sure he was on track and he did actually graduate in four years, even though the average for his group was around six years.

No matter how early (or late) you are in your program, it can only be to your advantage to be proactive regarding your plans for graduation. Before you meet with your PI read previous theses from your department to get an idea of the scope of a doctoral dissertation. Then design a study plan with specific research questions that you would like to answer, and discuss with your PI whether he or she agrees with your plan. If you are expected to publish, then this would be a good time to go over the manuscripts you are planning to write. It is also a great opportunity to talk to your PI about techniques or instruments you would like to learn about before you graduate. (It’s never too early to think about marketable job skills!)

Since research frequently takes unexpected turns, you will probably need to meet regularly with your PI to make sure you are staying on track. One of the biggest mistakes students make is to “hide” from the PI when their research is not going well. Remember to reach out for help when you are stuck, because it is in your PI’s interest that you succeed and publish.

In summary, the sooner you can talk with your PI and the better prepared you are for the meeting, the better!


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


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1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Yevgeniy

    wrote on February 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I completely agree with Dora. The sooner you approach this subject, the better. Some PIs have a tendency to get "clingy" when it comes to graduating their students. Why? Well, because you have become a valuable resource to the lab and in many ways, unique. So when all of a sudden you tell you PI that you want to graduate in 6 months, they might have a sudden attack of separation anxiety. So it is better to get the ball rolling early and make sure that your PI agrees with your timeline for finishing your work and graduating.

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