How to predict a PhD defense date

(This post is mirrored from Jody’s blog Intersection of Everything)

Before I delude you any longer into thinking I have an answer for the title question, I don’t. But since I’m hearing that gut-wrenching question “so, when will you be done?” more and more frequently as I progress further into the 4th year of my program (eek!), I figured I better come up with a good way to answer it. (This question, for those of you not pursuing a life of extended studentship, is half-jokingly the most taboo thing you can ask a grad student – mostly because it makes us face the fact that we really don’t have a clue.)

Seriously though, it sometimes seems impossible to be able to accurately predict timelines in science, at least in my (relatively limited) experience. As a rule, things never go as planned, something breaks or doesn’t work properly and has to be redone, or, most frequently, you get an answer you didn’t expect so you have to redesign your experiments and try something totally new. While this iterative process can sometimes feel frustrating and circular, it’s also half the fun of doing science – the chance to fiddle and play until you find something that works and reveals a new result. It’s just hard to know how many iterations of the fun you might have to complete before you get to the goods.

So how is a graduate student to predict when they’re going to be finished? My new strategy is to make sure I accomplish at least one task per day that is directly related to my thesis work. This might sound ridiculously obvious, but it’s a tougher challenge in practice than it sounds. As the most senior student in my lab and the only researcher working on a relatively large project, I’m constantly being asked to train other students, to give advice, to help organize data or personnel, to participate in departmental events, and to contribute in various other ways that, while challenging and interesting, won’t necessarily get me closer to a thesis and 3 letters after my name. Hence my OneADay commitment to complete thesis related tasks which will hopefully get me out the door and into the sweet Hogwarts-esque PhD regalia (including Beefeater cap!) before I hit the big 3-0!

I hope I look as good as this guy. Minus the beard.

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Jody is a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology at UBC.