Graduate School: How Long is Too Long?

Dear Dora,

How long is *too* long to be in grad school? There’s a 9th year in our department and it scares the life out of me. What do you think? 

-Alexa, second-year graduate student


Hi Alexa,

Nine years is definitely a long time, but there are some fields (e.g. humanities and social sciences), where a nine year PhD is approximately average. In the life sciences the average is usually between 4-7 years (depending on the nature of the research). However, there are students who take 8, 9 or 10 years in the life sciences while their group mates graduate in 4-6 years.

If you want to decrease your chances of having a very long PhD, my recommendation is to stay on top of your research on a daily basis. Be proactive about getting projects going (sometimes multiple projects simultaneously). Many experiments or projects will fail but the sooner a bad project fails, the sooner you will learn from it and the sooner you can get started on a new project. Sometimes what sets students back is that they let projects linger for weeks or months, and then they have a tough time catching up. Weeks turn into months and years, and they have little to show for their long hours in the lab. Make every day count, and keep your eyes focused on your goals (i.e. publishing, job search, graduation)

The relationship with your PI will also impact the length of your PhD and the quality of your research. First, be sure to maintain a professional relationship your supervisor (even if he/she has a difficult personality). Second, communicate as frequently as needed to ensure that the two of you are on the same page regarding the requirements for publishing and graduation. Finally, if you get stuck, ask for help either from your PI, group mates or other professors so you can get your project back on track.


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!


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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. [email protected]

    wrote on November 12, 2012 at 10:57 am

    There is a distinct difference between being an undergraduate and a graduate student and the mental transition that goes with it can be tough. From the time we first step foot in a classroom around 5-6 years old, as long as we do our homework and go to class, we'll continue to progress through the system. The day we start class, we know the day we'll graduate–whether that's 6th grade, 12th grade or college.

    But graduate school is a different beast. It's open-ended, so simply showing up every day will no longer cut it. Now we have to take control and drive the outcome we want. For many of us, we've worked hard to get into graduate school, but the transition from a more passive role to a more active role takes a while to get used to. As Dora says, the sooner you set goals, manage multiple projects, and develop a strong relationship with your PI–the sooner you're out of there.

    To your question about the number of years in grad school, we did a poll asking scientists how long grad school should take and here are the results:

    If it helps, I only knew of a couple of 9th years–so odds are on your side you'll get out sooner.

    Good luck!

  2. Christopher Dieni

    wrote on November 12, 2012 at 11:45 am

    This is an entirely personal and 100% subjective opinion, but one of the pros about taking a bit longer in grad school is to make sure that at the end of it, assuming you intend to do a postdoc, you lock down a postdoc that you are 100% happy and comfortable with. In retrospect, I would've rather waited a year or two longer in grad school (I had funding for up to two years longer than I actually took) if only to wait until the offer from the right postdoc lab came along. Instead, I rushed feet-first into a postdoc that I ultimately was unhappy with, simply because the PI was a big name and I felt it was "time" to move on from grad school- even though, as I said, I could've easily remained for an additional two years.

    Just another angle to consider while you're watching the clock…

    Best of luck!

  3. @Chemjobber

    wrote on November 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    How many presidential elections have you seen in graduate school? One or two? No problem. 3? Non va bene. 4? Uh-oh.

    Also, some data from the NSF on time-to-degree:

    It's a little old (2003, I think), but it is the best, most accurate that we have (I think.)

  4. [email protected]

    wrote on November 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    And if you can get into the number of Halley's comet sightings, it might be time to hang it up…

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