How to maximally piss off a PhD student in five words

There’s this one question that PhD students do not want to hear – never! (model photo from

It’s hilarious how a little innocent question is able to make PhD students all around the globe[1] feel miserable, feel hate for the inquirer, for his or her supervisor and/or for the world in general. I would assume that, by now, everyone is aware of the reflexes that it is causing, no matter if it is being asked by acquaintances, colleagues, friends or family. Obviously my assumption, however, is totally beyond reality, given the frequency at which I’m being asked.

“So, when will you be finished?”

There you go! Just writing it down makes me feel queasy. No kidding.

Even before I had started my PhD I knew that it was absolutely to be avoided to ask this question in any of its forms to a PhD student. At that time, I was not sure if this was just talking, an exaggeration to make some point or another or if there was anything to it. The first two-three years into my PhD I was still thinking that I would pretty much not care if anyone would ask. Now I’m in my fifth year and at some point – I have no clue when that was – this changed completely.

For the outsider, it is still the same, innocent question and, formally, it is, right? There’s someone who’s curious, maybe even caring about your life, asking for a little piece of factual information. So there must be something completely different implied in the question when you are hearing it as an “advanced” PhD student. Let’s delve into this a little deeper.

First, when you will be asked for this sort of information? Probably you are a PhD student for a couple of years before it happens to you for the first time. People who know you don’t need to ask in the first two or so years as they know that a PhD usually takes about at least three years. (For people who don’t know when you started, this may actually be the follow-up question after “For how long have you been working on your PhD already?”) Only when they consider it reasonable that you may be graduating in the not-so-distant future. Can you feel the pressure building up?
Second, the piece of information that you are being asked for may be far less factual than the questioner assumes. For most of your PhD you simply won’t know! (That is, unless you are lucky and part of a structured PhD program with annual reports and an actual deadline to your PhD.) Up to that point, when you have successfully done your final experiment, there is still one more experiment that can go wrong. And if you learn one thing in your PhD it will be that an experiment can go wrong in many more ways than you can imagine.
Third, there is another source for pressure. It’s other PhDs that have started their journey around the same time as you have. Given the average likelihoods that can be derived from stochastics there will be someone to finish earlier than you. Even if there’s not, there may still be some old friends from school who already became a successful lawyer, engineer, … as many of them can jump into “real jobs” right after their Master’s degree. If that’s not a good ground for envy, what is?
Fourth, and finally, the PhD, according to the majority’s experience, is a rather painful time with ups and a lot of downs. Of course, you would want to be finished rather sooner than later. This, for sure, does not need anyone to remind you of, right?

What is to be learned from this? If you consider asking a PhD student when he or she will be finished: Don’t! If he or she is to graduate in the near future, he or she will let you know. For sure.

To all the PhD students out there: You are not alone! There may be many more things making you feel bad about this or some other question. Feel free to share your thoughts! It may help others to bring to mind what they struggle with and make it easier to deal with those things. That’s what I like to hope at least.