Monday, 12 August 2013 11:39

How to Get Your PhD in Less than Five Years—Shortcuts on the Long-Haul to Graduation

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hat tossingAli Khademhosseini is a scientist in a hurry. Khademhosseini, now an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in just three years and eight months. He published 12 first-author papers during his graduate studies, working on engineering cellular microenvironments in Robert Langer's lab. Khademohesseini recommends making a plan of action before starting experiments. He told me, "I often wrote an outline of my project including the innovation and expected analysis methods to have a plan of what the paper would look like at the end. I then went about testing various hypotheses. It is important to design experiments in which even a failure results in new knowledge."

According to NSF data in 2011 a PhD in life sciences in the United States took a median of 6.9 years, down from 7.7 years in 1991. A few PhD programs, like the Department of Biology at Stanford University, say it takes students five and a half years. However, an eight-year PhD is not unheard of in many grad schools. PIs may want to keep good students around longer but most students look forward to "real" life after graduate school.

I'd sought out Khademohesseini and other "rapid grads" because I also graduated in less than five years, well, just barely—four years and 11 months. I wanted to know if it was just chance, or if we shared common strategies.

I did my graduate work in Ora Weisz's lab at the University of Pittsburgh where I worked on endocytosis and exocytosis in polarized kidney cells. Entering grad school, it was not my goal to get out fast, and yet, in addition to having plain good luck, I did a few things that accelerated graduation. During my rotations, I looked for a good mentor and supportive lab mates rather than a specific research topic. I succeeded in finding an amazing mentor who helped keep my project focused and lab mates who were willing to provide guidance and protocols. I also had good peer advice. Another student advised me to push for frequent thesis committee meetings, one every eight months rather than sitting back and waiting to be nagged. I also started job hunting eight months before I planned to graduate. This reminded everyone, myself included, that I needed to get out into the real world. When I got a job offer just a few months later, my graduation timeline was accelerated. Needing to quickly write my thesis, I was glad that I had kept a spreadsheet with all the papers I had read, with first author in one column, year in the second, and one sentence about the paper in the third. I found I could easily search my spreadsheet, finding papers that I had kept in alphabetical order by first author.

Anthony St Leger was the first in my class to graduate—in just four years and one month. Now a postdoc at the NIH, St Leger investigated herpes simplex virus-specific T cells in Robert Hendricks' lab at the University of Pittsburgh. When I asked St Leger for his secrets to success, he laughed it off. "It was mostly serendipity," he claimed. But after more probing, he admitted that he chose his lab as I did, based on a good mentor and supportive lab mates. He too had regular committee meetings and a job offer in hand well before graduation. St Leger also separated his days into "experiment days" and "analysis days." On "experiment days," he would only do lab work, and meticulously prepared for next steps in his experiments to ensure that they would not fail due to technical errors. On experiment days, he would not read papers, write, or surf the web. On "analysis days," he would analyze data, plan experiments, read papers, and make figures for future publication.

I've heard many sad stories of grad students sucked under by a "bad project," but St Leger said he deliberately started three completely different projects when he joined the lab to ensure he would not land in a dead-end project. When one of the three took off, he focused on that one.

Jennifer Sargent, a research fellow at the NIH, graduated from Michael Whitfield's lab at Dartmouth University in four years and nine months. She worked on characterizing molecular subsets of scleroderma using computational analysis and animal models. Like St Leger, she worked on several projects at the same time. "If one thing was being slow... I could pick up another project that I was working on," she explained. She joined the Whitfield lab for the quality of mentorship rather than the project. Her mentor told her that coming to graduate school is about new experiences and developing skills more than the research project itself, she recalled. "But it turned out that I loved my project, and I had a good working relationship with [my mentor]," Sargent said. She also credited her willingness to talk to experts in the field who were often eager to help. "Some of my best ideas, which really drove my project forward, were from talking to people at meetings," she added.

Sargent also strongly recommends collaborating with other labs. "Because I was collaborating with people and I didn't want to disappoint them, and because we were pushing each other to drive something forward, I stayed on track." Khademhosseini agrees, he "found that working with others was fantastic in making things go fast."

Are long days and weekends in the lab crucial for a quick finish? During graduate school, St Leger said he participated in a dekhockey league and played golf. Running every day helped him, he said. "Exercise cleared my mind so I could do experiments well." Sargent was an avid rock climber and competed in endurance cycling. I wrote a local food blog, volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and took non-scientific writing classes. "Of course one needs to work hard and play hard," Khademosseini said, "The key is efficiency."

After his daughter was born, St Leger wanted to be home by 5:00 pm every day to spend time with her before she went to bed. Having this goal made him more efficient, he said, "Effective planning to avoid weekend work and time management to avoid terribly long hours in the lab definitely go a long way in having a life outside of the lab."

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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