** Disclaimer** The situation I write about is from someone I know, and is similar, in some aspects, to that of others I’ve met in the past. This isn’t meant to reflect the situation of every student that’s still in the lab in his/her 5th, 6th, + year of grad school (I got my PhD after 5.5 yrs in the lab). This is just about this person’s current situation. I don’t believe it’s a one-size-fits-all-type thing, and I only offer my honest opinion. While I do not posses all the facts, I think that given the current information this person should get out ASAP, and push his writing into high gear before it’s too late.
I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while, and since I have a bit of free time between experiments, here it goes.
Most of us have seen/heard or been in this position. You or someone you know has been in grad school for over 5, 6 or (insert whichever # you like here) years doing the PhD. Things aren’t going as planned, or you’ve switched projects a few times, or you switched labs because a) your boss died (happened twice while I was in grad school, but no, not to me!), b) your boss moved somewhere else where you didn’t want to move (happened to a girl I know, and to some of the 1st students my previous boss had), c) your boss and you aren’t on friendly terms anymore, d) insert your own situation here.
It seems as if the data from years 2 and on sucks, or is inconclusive, and you are at your wit’s end. Life generally sucks, and then the bomb drops, your funding is being cut or eliminated, depending on which institution you go to (and their rules), which fellowship pays you (and/or for how long), your adviser is running out of money (and/or patience), or your grad funding has an expiration date (like it does in ON, and I don’t know who many other provinces). It could be for something totally different or a combination of the above.
The point is, you’ve made it past a bunch of hurdles and you’re at the stage where all people ask you is when are you going to defend, not so much the “how’s your project going?” And all of a sudden you have no money, nothing to live on. No stipend. Nada!
Meet grad student X (GSX for short). GSX is 35, single, and in his grad school year #6. GSX worked as a tech for a while, was a DNA machine and then, after a while decided to give grad school a try. GSX has a few papers, some from being a tech, 2 or 3 from his PhD work. GSX is hard working … in his own way. He shows up to the lab anywhere between 10am and 2 pm, and is usually in until 9pm most days of the week. GSX is well versed in current politics, religion, cooking, wine and coding, in addition to being a biochem/cell/mol bio machine. And when he’s not doing DNA or protein work, he’s enjoying his non-lab activities. A bit of a renaissance man if you would.
This is where things take a turn for the bad. GSX’s funding ran out a year ago (he hit his PhD-year #5, so funding would automatically be cut, or at least reduced so that tuition would not covered anymore, ie. you have to pay for your enrollment and research credits/fees out of your own pocket). Apparently in Ontario (if you’re a citizen or permanent resident) your grad tuition is covered, or you get funding for 4 years, no more, no less. His boss paid for a while when he thought GSX was getting out soon-ish, but eventually cut off all the funding. GSX is in his 6th year now, and his government (provincial) funding ran out at the end of his 4th year, meaning, his boss paid for his 5th year and when GSX started his 6th, the boss dropped him from the payroll. Unless GSX secures money from a fellowship or scholarship now, he is going to be poor …. for real.
I’m not well versed into how this provincial funding thing works. Thus, that part of the problem is beyond the scope of this entry. But, the are fellowships designed or targeting students who are finishing their degree and may run over the funded period. Some students secure pre-doctoral fellowships which extend over those years beyond the 4th. Others secure scholarships or financial aid which covers them while they are writing their dissertation (kind of a dissertation writing fellowship). Others, in conjunction with their adviser, get a real job, and write whenever they can (once the funding runs out). I’ve only seen a master’s student doing it, and I’m not sure how legal it is or how many students are doing it. GSX has done none, and hasn’t been making a penny since August (when his 6th year started).
Apparently, GSX and his PI talked about working for a reduced amount of money, enough to cover tuition and have money left over to buy powdered-milk and ramen noodles. Then, the boss told him that money was tight until he renews his grant, and since GSX’s lab work is done, he’s the one getting the axe first. The boss has to cover other student’s stipend who haven’t gotten over their 4th year.
Thing is, GSX was supposed to be writing since last August, or even before that. But when some in-house software went crazy, he stayed to fix it, postponing the writing. After that, he did a bit of work to jump start a new project, which would go into his final thesis chapter, then he dropped off the face of the Earth. GSX hasn’t been seen or heard of by most of his labmates (with the exception of 2 people, who are very secretive about it, understandably) since sometime in August.
All this brings me to the following series of questions:
- If most of your data has been collected, and you should, in theory, be working on the write up, which on average takes his labmates 3 months to complete, shouldn’t most of the thesis be written by now?
- Shouldn’t you be scheduling your defense already? The way the thesis is written up here is that any papers you have submitted and are accepted can be added as print-outs, no re-writing necessary, which shaves the time of reformatting or re-writing things so that they comply with the grad school’s format/rules. Therefore, if your thesis includes an intro, a brief materials and methods section for the computing part, and a conclusions chapter, in theory … shouldn’t that be in the final stages?
- GSX is still a student, which means he has access to computer centres on campus, and free internet in the library, so, even if he didn’t have hydro (power) in his house (due to the loss of funding), he could potentially take the bus (which is still being covered by the grad school fees) and write up a bit every day. If these things have not happened, then, what else is going on?
- Or why has this process taking so long? I know this sounds terrible, but it just blows my mind when I think that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t that willing to get out with your degree ASAP. I mean, come on man, we all go through rough times when it’s time to write the thesis. We have at some point or another dragged our feet when writing. If (God-forbid) something else is going on (say, a family problem or illness), why not talk to the boss and see if funding can be reinstated pending good progress on your writing? Say, a chapter every month or something similar.
*These point do not apply to those fellows whose projects have taken way too long thanks to many, many things, like a lot of tweaking only to realise your construct(s) is bad, or the project is truly not working like it should because is it way harder than expected, or way more complicated, or your boss is a jerk who won’t listen to reason and wants you to keep on working with something that’s truly awful and not going to work.*
I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye. I try to side with the students as much as possible because heck! I was a student just a bit over a year ago. I know what it is like to be in the grinder, and to have a project stalled because some obscure reagent or equipment is not available or cooperating. Or because the boss is relentless in his/her efforts to push past this stalling stage even when everything indicates that things just aren’t going to work no matter how much money, time, or magic you put into it. It’s hard! I’ve been there. I spent over a year trying to convince my PhD boss to publish a paper that although wasn’t as kick ass as we wanted, still had a lot of potential. We finally did, and it got accepted with just minor revisions!
But GSX’s situation has me scratching my head. I mean, I remember a friend’s wise words when I was entering my 3rd year. She said, “hon, you will get this itch you can’t scratch type thing when you hit your 3rd or 4th year. Things will be sour, you will hate your boss until your defense day, and then, things will be peaches and cream because order has been restored to the world.” I got the itch, OK? 3.5 years into it. I wasn’t too desperate, but I got the itch. I was relatively happy, after year #1 was gone, and boss found out how frustrated I was, a new project was assigned and I was unstoppable, yet I wanted to get out eventually.
Maybe I’m taking this from the wrong angle. But, if you have no more experiments to run, and the funding is out, the only thing that’s left to do is to write the thesis and get out and find a real job. I don’t know why this person is stalling. And apparently, with every month that passes the boss keeps getting more frustrated by this person’s, seeming, lack of interest/motivation to finish up.
I thought that this dragging-out thing was just a myth. But apparently, this isn’t the first time a student in the department, let alone the school, does it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my goal-oriented nature that drives me to finish something, scratch it from my list and move on. There’s probably something else going on which us outsiders can’t see or know. But my first instinct, once I knew I had no more data to collect, once those bullet points or goals in my previous boss’s grant pages were completed, was to put everything together, update my committee and go through the formalities to “ask permission” to write the thesis. Heck! One of my committee members was so happy to see me reach this stage that a) he said I could join his group and do a lab meeting for them to see how research was done and how our lab determined structures “our way” and b) asked my why on God’s green Earth half of my thesis wasn’t written up yet because I should have clearly been out ages before I set up my last committee meeting! Go figure!
Granted, not everyone has it as easy as I did. But, like I said, if you have nothing else to collect, you’ve completed all that was expected of you and then some, there shouldn’t (in theory) be any other hoops to jump through in order to get the whole document together and schedule the damn thing.
Tomorrow, I try to offer (possible) answers to some of the questions I asked above, and I hope to give some insight into how to a) avoid the situation, b) get your boss to reinstate funding (if possible) and/or c) get out with a good letter of recommendation, even when you’ve made it obvious to the boss that you don’t care if 1) your funding is cut, and/or b) you’re taking the loooong way to get the thesis written.