Time to become a PhD – The dream of graduating soon

Imagine, years have passed and you reach the far away goal of your dreams: You have written up your PhD thesis and are ready to hand in! And, almost equally satisfying, you are ready to smile back at those people’s faces who have been driving you crazy the years by asking “When will you be finished?“. After such a long time you can finally answer this question with: “ I have handed in the thesis so it will be very soon.”

Soon, well…, but how soon actually… ???

All the hard work of the past years should finally end in a PhD (image from colourbox.com)

I think in general your PhD time can be split into three stages: During the first and long stage, of experimental work and data collection, time is partially in your hands. It is a time of dreams and frustration, and of hard work to push things forward. Towards the end of stage one, you have collected a good set of data to prove your hypothesis, and you may have managed to publish some of your data in a journal, you have (finally!) arrived at the point at which you can write up your PhD thesis. This is the first time that time is really in your hands. It’s primarily about how fast you manage to write up and, well, often also about how long you have to wait to get feedback on your draft. In contrast, the third stage is not primarily in your hands. You’ve handed in your thesis, your graduation committee has to evaluate your work and the graduation office has to (or, at least, should) coordinate the process.

At this point, quite some PhD students have been wondering: How long does it actually take from handing in the thesis until defending it and getting the final degree?

Official data answering that question was not available. Therefore, I did a small online survey amongst alumni from different departments at the Natural Science faculty of Bonn University (n=32). Although not representative (due to small sample size and a non-representative distribution of different majors), the collected data gave us a picture of the situation. Our survey showed that for half of the students (51.6 %) it had taken 6 months or longer until they could defend their thesis in the past. Whereas, only 20 % of the former PhD students could finish within 3 months after handing in their thesis.

Our gathered data show that on average it takes more than five months (5.2 months with a standard deviation of 2.3 months) to finish up after handing in your thesis. So, I wondered: Why is that?

First, let`s understand the official process after you’ve handed in your thesis (according to the “Promotionsordnung”:

  1. To start the graduation process, the graduation committee has to be approved by the dean. (The dean is quite a busy person, so it might take him one week to approve your committee.)
  2. The graduation office sends out the printed versions of your thesis to the first and second reviewer.
  3. The two reviewers write a review on your thesis. (For this, the deadline is four weeks §9(2).)
  4. Once the reviews from the first and second reviewer have arrived at the graduation office, the office asks the third and fourth reviewer to give their votes.
  5. The third and fourth reviewers send their votes to the graduation office. (For this, they have a one-week deadline §9(3).)
  6. According to the votes the graduation office decides if an additional referee is needed. (That is, in case of a summa cum laude examination.)
  7. If an additional referee, a professor from another university) is needed, this person has another four weeks to write an evaluation §9(4).
  8. When all the documents have arrived at the graduation office, you are officially allowed to coordinate a date for your defense with your graduation committee. This is after the official display time of the thesis (two weeks) §9(7)).

Sounds complicated? Well, it is about getting a PhD degree. So, I think it is appropriate to go through a structured and well-coordinated process.

But let’s calculate:

1 week getting the committee approved
4 weeks deadline for the reviews
1 weeks deadline for the votes
[4 weeks for the external review for summa cum laude candidates]
2 weeks display of your thesis

Then let’s add some buffer time (since it might need some time until the next step is being started):
1 week for sending out your thesis
[1 week until sending the thesis to the external referee]
1 week for the processing steps (send out request for votes, etc.)

So, adding up the numbers, I end up with a maximum of ten [to fifteen] weeks or two and a half [to four] months. Let’s assume – since PhD students in Bonn are excellent (;-)) – half of them are summa cum laude candidates, and since referees are busy all the time, they all need the maximal time for the reviews and votes until the end of the deadlines. Then, the average time should be 12.5 weeks – which is about three months.

Why does it on average take 21 weeks instead of the conservatively calculated 12.5 weeks?

We asked graduates, for who the process had lasted longer than 3 months (80%), if there were certain reasons for the delay. While alumni mainly were unsure about what the reasons might have been, the answers we received ranged mainly from long processing time (several weeks until things were sent out), examiners did not stick to their deadlines (and were not reminded that their deadline had passed already several weeks ago) till holiday time (like Christmas, Easter, Summer holidays…) and finally difficulties to find a date for the defense that fits all committee members.

But, why does that bother students? Often students have the chance to stay at their institute and have time to finish some other projects. The PhD students, who are about to finish, might have relaxing time to search for a nice postdoc position or other job opportunities without any pressure. And, after four years or longer of doing a PhD, why should it matter if it takes four or four and a half years to finish?

Well, there is a number of situations when this really is an issue:
  1. Some student’s contract or fellowship has ended and no additional funding is available. They are waiting to get their degree and are on the dole (“Arbeitslosengeld I”) or even receive “Harz IV“.
  2. Unnecessary waiting time for those who already have arranged their next position and need their degree to start: Students who want to start their postdoc in another lab (for example in the US) or also for some who want to go into industry positions in which it is not possible to start their new job before having received the degree.
  3. The job interview: How long did you need to finish your PhD? Well, it’s not only about prestige, especially for those who transit into industry at one point in their career. Five years instead of four and a half years might be a disadvantage when being compared with other applicants.

The money you could have earned while you were waiting for your defense could have gotten you to this place 😉 (image from colourbox.com)

But, besides “soft factors” like having to wait until pushing your career to the next stage or possible later disadvantages in application processes, there are clear financial implications for some students. Before starting as a postdoc or a job in in pharmaceutical industry, students, who are about to finish, might be still paid a PhD student salary or even without a job. This means, for example, that if you have to wait three months longer than necessary due to a slow evaluation process, you lose 6,000 – 12,000 € (TVL13) or 9,000-15,000 € (pharma industry). Well even after taxes this would still be quite a luxury vacation for several weeks.

Luckily, you do not have to give up your dream of graduating soon! There are strategies und solutions to target this issue. Next week, we will discuss what you can do to change things and how to find yourself on such holidays instead of getting riled ’cause things drag on for months.

featured image: colourbox.com/ Armin Staudt

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  1. Pingback: Time to become a PhD – Time to fasten up becoming a PhD – ImmunosensationBlog

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