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Difficulty Graduating


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Hello all, I'm a ... 'super-annuated' Ph.D. student in molecular/cellular biology at a state university on the east coast of the US.

I'm here to vent to/relate my story to/get advice from, the group here.  I've been googling for other's stories about situations like mine and it would seem that few are informative for my own 'unique' predicament.  And so I'll just dive right into my story and let you guys give me your two cents.  This is a HUGE wall of text, and for that, I am sorry. I tried to include only as much detail as necessary and no more to convey the nuance of it all.  I'd be deeply grateful if you read the whole post and given me your advice.

I'll preface all of this that I'm finishing my 8th year as a Ph.D. student... It pains me even  to type that sentence.  

I feel like I'm damaged goods, and will be all but unemployable once I -am- graduated because of my time spent in grad school.  I've become cynical about the future of academic research and have largely come to hate the science that once fascinated me because of the system built around it.  

People I've spoken to about my feelings regarding my situation often talk about the 'imposter syndrome' which is not true for me at all.  I feel like a smart, competent, researcher with a very firm grasp on my research and a good knowledge of its place in the field.  I do not suffer from the notion that I really don't know anything about my subject, biology, nor from the delusion that I do (or even should) know it all.  I accept that neither I, nor most Ph.Ds, including PIs, have encyclopedic knowledge of all of biology; in fact I often talk to knowledgeable, very well respected, PIs after seminars about stuff, assuming that they would know all about the process I was referring to, just to learn that they don't have a clue about it whatsoever.  In short, not everyone is Jeremy Thorner and I'm well aware of that fact.  

I do, however, suffer from the idea that my protracted stay as a grad student, my unremarkable institution and my only passable publication record (once I'm done, more on this facet later) has already doomed my career.  I'd LIKE to stay in the geographical location but... it's highly competitive here.

My situation:

I got my bachelors in biology from an undergraduate only institution in Nevada as the first four year class to matriculate from the college (I chose this school because it was affordable and had an 8:1 student:professor ratio).  This was a non-research institution so there was no 'lab volunteer' experience for me to have and so it took until my senior year before I realized I really was smart enough (how naive) to take on a masters or PhD in my field.  I liked the field, as I enjoy figuring out complex systems (the intricacies of engines, for example, were fascinating to me) and biology was the ultimate complex system.  So, I took a year off after graduation, living at home and volunteered for a year in a lab at a lab at the only research institution in the state I was in doing PDT work on glioma cells.  With this in hand I applied to about 8 Ph.D. programs with my former undergrad mentor's full support.  I only got into two programs, one in the southwestern US, of which I had had enough of and wanted a change of pace. The other school which I'm at presently was on the east coast.  It provided a worderfully different experience than the southwest where I had essentially lived my entire life.  My second school was also was in the vicinity of a HUGE biotech/life science research hub and seemed like a great place to get my foot in the door to a much healthier research area than the other school. 

At no point was I advised against any of this, and I was never told by anyone along the way that this was an high pressure -very- low paying field... unless you managed to land a tenured professorship which paid a reasonable amount, and was held up as the example to me for what to expect for compensation in choosing this path.  I was also never advised that there were so few academic positions available to so many PhD students.  In essence, I was (?unintentionally?) lied to by a lot of people about what I was getting into and I ran headlong into it.  I'm making a logical leap when I say that I am apparently not the only one that this happened to, leading to a massive overabundance of Ph.D. students in my field (see the Alberts paper recognizing this problem along with a line back to still well after I joined the fold and was in 'too deep to quit now').  

Fast forward 5 years.  At 5 years in, I had a difficult project that was not yielding good results, a PI who in no way demanded results nor gave meaningful direction.  I had walked into the lab with two grants totaling over $500k a year, with two senior grad students (3rd and 4th year); both grants were lost during my stay, leaving my project unfunded.  A new grant was obtained after a year gap, but on projects that I wasn't working on that still left my project unfunded.  My PI still managed to get tenure with a single publication that she was first author on because it was tying up her final paper from her postdoc.  She had graduated no graduated students except washing out a PhD as a master's degree.  At this point I began to realize the kind of program I was dealing with.  The two PhD students mentioned above, were as follows; the first one, I'll call him Joe, graduated after TEN years with one paper, the second washed out with a masters as mentioned above with a second author paper after six years.  Joe is still in the lab two years later, working for free trying to shore up three additional papers to help make him competitive for a job (which he has not yet been able to get).  The one who washed out, got screwed over.  Her paper was about 60-70% finished after her 6 years (being generous with how much had to be completed) when she left and another PhD student who I'll call Jill, who came in a year after me, took the project, finished up in a year wrote it up and took exclusive first authorship over the objection of Joe and myself.  She had 'her' publication out in her fourth year, took a year to search for jobs and graduated at 5 years with a fairly prestigious postdoc fellowship.  Meanwhile Joe was more or less forced to defend his dissertation without a paper, passed and graduated at the same time as Jill, and since spent the rest of this time as described above, in a unpaid faux-doc finishing three manuscripts in hopes to look productive.  This smacked of favoritism.  Jill did not even come CLOSE to providing the majority of the work, or intellectual contribution to claim first authorship, then also get ushered on into a post-doc.

The paper Jill published was not particularly good =, largely a 6 figure cheeseball of mostly unrelated experiments aimed at characterizing an gene's unknown function that told no coherent story.  This is not to say it's bad science, it's just not an amazing paper.  In the meantime, I managed to break open my project and in the course of one year put together a 7 figure paper that superseded the previous paper on my gene of interest, firmly placing my protein's role firmly in a much earlier point of development.  I slid copies of my figures under my PI's office door, emailed her revised versions every few weeks, presented my work at lab meetings and got back NO FEEDBACK.  I had a full first draft written up and submitted to my PI by May of 2014. Joe's first paper, was finally submitted in late September and accepted in October 2014.  By this point I had already taken my work, in complete form, and presented it as a poster at a conference in July 2014 and presented essentially ALL of my data publicly there.  At that point, the entire premise of my paper became public knowledge. When my PI and I returned from the conference, I did not get any feedback through November in which Joe's paper was in review.  At the time I was promised that my paper was next up in queue  In December 2014 she decided that another paper from Joe was more important to publish (a three figure paper in a low impact journal).  Joe's paper was accepted in very early January 2015.   There were no other papers in the pipeline to be worked on from this point forward except mine.  From mid January to mid February I inquired on a 2-3 day basis about the status of my paper until one day in her office I was dismissed with a curt "You'll be the first to know," at which point I stopped prodding.  I continued to work on other projects in the meantime including a collaboration with another lab.  

Fast forward to late JUNE of 2015, my PI finally starts to work on revising my paper and gets back drafts to me until in current state over two weeks requesting lots of changes to figures which I completed overnight because I want this thing OUT.  After all, people have seen all the data for almost a year, anyone could scoop me at this point.  This situation has gotten so protracted that the PI we're collaborating with told us in a conference call that he 'must have somehow missed your publication'.   She then stops working on it and asks for a whole extra experiment that will not make it into a figure and requires a whole new strain to be created TO PROVE ONE FLUORESCENT PROTEIN IS BETTER THAN ANOTHER WHEN MY PAPER HAS NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH FLUOR COMPARISONS and will not budge on this requirement.  I am working on this, but I -am- making a whole new strain so it's been taking time (a little over a month now and I'm onto my third strategy).  Honestly, this feels like a stalling tactic more than anything.  I now feel like my PI is actively holding back my publishing and ultimately my graduation.  In short, I've completed 8 years of PhD research and my paper has been in 95% of its final form for over one year now and she still won't submit it, get it accepted and let me graduate.  I've gone to my committee but this is a very small program with a lot of professors on each other's student's committees and no one is willing to call out another PI for not graduating their students.  I was not told this outright, but it's what's happening and it's crazy.  I've summed up the average time a PhD takes in this program and its 7.7years... conservatively; and I couldn't have possibly known this going into the program because when I got in, there were -only- 3-4th year students who all thought they were "this close" to their own graduation and now all sing a similar tune as I albeit with different circumstances. 

Professionally, I can't afford to burn the bridge with my PI and graduate through my committee like a hostile take-over, as basically the rest on my career rides on her recommendation letter, but I can't stay here any longer as my career is already sliding down the tubes.  At this point I feel exploited, I feel betrayed and I feel the academic system is a sham. 

I need advice.  Ask any detail you want I'll be happy to clarify.

Edited by Underthebridge
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I'm not at all in your field but, let me ask you some questions.

1) Do you have any mentors outside of your institution with whom you could consult? They might be able to offer more/better field-specific insight into your situation. Also, maybe some of them have postdoc funding that you could have once you graduate.

2) Can you submit the paper without your PI's knowledge? (I don't know at all about the ethics of this since I'm not in your field. If it's unethical, ignore my suggestion!)

3) Can you schedule a sitdown conversation with your PI where you work together to map out a timeline for the completion of your PhD? Like, work backwards from when you want to graduate to figure out what needs to be done and by when. Do you need one paper to graduate or multiple papers? How long will the experiments needed for those papers take you to complete? Is there the possibility of authoring or co-authoring grants to bring funding for your project? 

4) What is it you want to do after your PhD? Presumably there are opportunities to make money by running a research lab in industry (R&D, pharmaceutical company, etc.). In fact, going the tenured professor route may be less profitable than other options. Check out VersatilePhD if you want to explore options beyond academia.

Best of luck!

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Thank you so much for replying.

1) I do have one option available to me, but I also feel it might be seen as a negative to post-doc in more or less the same subject on which I did my dissertation.  For whatever reason, the biological sciences 'want to see you learn something new' during your postdoc.  This somewhat makes sense given that postdocs are supposed to be a 'training' period.  At this point I see it as a rationale many PIs use to feel less cognitive dissonance about using you for cheap labor while 'training you' in the nuances of a new organism/field... instead of training you to be a PI.  There's that cynicism creeping in again.  But as this drags on, I feel more and more compelled to just move to Toronto and give up a more ideal post-doc since I'm becoming less and less competitive for one anyway.  He did not give me very good advice beyond "get it done" in terms of research.  Nevermind that it's been done.

2) Yes, technically I can, but it's definitely a grey area in most people's eyes.  I'd have to pay the cost of publication myself (between $1-2k USD) to do this so it's very unlikely that I'll be able to do this (My PI can just use her grant so doesn't even have to think about paying it).  Plus, it'd be taking a a nuclear bomb to the bridge between me and my PI, not just taking a torch to it.

3) I have already done this.  This one paper is all I need and it's being held up for either, bad, self-serving or irresponsible reasons.  I don't really care which anymore.  How long questions are impossible to answer.  Had everything gone to how it could possibly go?  I'd would have been done a month and a half ago.  This is not a matter of personal effort so much as the biology deciding to do what you want it to, or not... which is more often the latter.  I've been getting small grants here and there for it.  It's not really worth focusing on the funding now, it's too little and too late now, the paper is done and the issue is the PI not willing to submit.

4) I'm very well aware of the income differences between private industry versus academia.  I'd like to stay in the intellectual freedom of academia, but I've been made very aware I'm competing with superstar 4-year PhDs coming from MIT, Harvard and Cal Poly with multiple Science/Nature papers under their belt.  I'm not very hopeful after seeing my labmate 'Joe's' attempts at getting a job.

Thank you very much for the suggestion to look into VersatilePHDs, that looks like a great resource! 

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Re #3: If you still don't have a timeline, then you haven't really done what I suggested. You need to have a conversation with your PI that isn't solely focused on the paper but that is centered around the topic of your need (not just desire!) to graduate sooner rather than later so you can find a job.

Re #4: You'll always be competing with people who finished faster, with more pubs, and/or from a more prestigious institution. If you get caught up in that, you'll never go anywhere because you won't be able to get out of your own way. You've got to focus on what you can do and what you've done well and worry less about the competition, especially since your competition is beyond your control.

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I agree with rising_star that you need to have a definite timeline to graduation! In most programs, you are required to have regular thesis committee meetings and at the first meeting, you lay out your path to graduation and the committee approves it, which is kind of like an agreement that if you do X, Y and Z, then they will agree you are ready to defend. At each subsequent meeting, you revisit the timeline, see how much you have progressed and make adjustments as necessary. The committee will also hold both you and your advisor accountable and ensure that everything is being done to keep you on track.

It does not sound like these kinds of meetings are happening. I think this is the school's fault, not yours, because the program should have a system in place to ensure their students graduate in a reasonable amount of time. I am not sure what your field is like, but in my field, 5-6 years is the norm. If you are not finished within 6 years, you and your advisor actually have to petition the Graduate School to continue. Petitions are generally granted, but this serves as a check from the Graduate School that certain professors or programs are not intentionally holding their students back. It is very strange to hear that you are finishing your 8th year and your colleague Joe took 10 years. I feel like this is a big red flag that your school is letting you down.

However, it is not very helpful to dwell on what should have happened at this point. You are right--the main focus is for you to get the paper out and graduate and move on. My advice on how to do this would be to get help and allies. Start with other professors on your thesis committee. Find other professors in the department, especially the Head or the faculty member in charge of graduate students. If necessary, go outside of the department and seek help from the Graduate Office. I think your eventual goal is to get you and your PI to agree on a set timeline of how this paper will be published and how your thesis will look and when you will defend. You will get it in writing and it will be basically a contract that if you do A, B and C, then X, Y and Z should happen at the specified times. Your plan should include contingencies, like "okay you agree to do this experiment before you can submit, but what happens if the result is inconclusive?" Decide now, how many more experiments you and your PI are willing to do before you will submit what you have. Decide now, what chapters will go into your thesis and exactly how much more work, and how long will it take, for you to complete it. Decide now, what happens if something doesn't go as planned.

Ideally, you and your PI / committee would be able to decide on this as part of the normal advising process. However, it sounds like there are some communication issues. This is why I suggested getting outside help, such as other professors, the Department Head/Graduate Chair and the Graduate Office. If your PI is intentionally being malicious and keeping you from graduating, it might take a few other faculty members on your side in order to convince them to agree to something like this. If this is not the case, then the extra people can maybe help provide additional guidance (not to blame you but being a neutral third party, I want to consider both cases).

Good luck!

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I don't have specific advice, but I just wanted to add that your situation is a lot more common than you might feel. 

Some of our departments more successful graduate students ended up with 7/8 years before finishing, and there are a surprisingly large number of people on hiring committees that understand the lack of control over research delays. 

If you want to commiserate more, I'm about a year behind you in a similar situation- so I definitely feel for you!

Edited by Eigen
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Five to six years is the norm in my experimental social science field, but I've talked to some professors and they have mostly said that they don't really care how long it take you to finish the PhD. They have told me it's not something they consider when hiring, and many times, they don't even know. You're only supposed to put the end date of your PhD on your CV - so for example, my CV might say "BA, 2008; PhD, 2014." That could mean that I spent 6 years getting my PhD after my BA or that I took 2 years off after the BA and got my PhD in 4 years. I mean, they might be able to piece it together from the rest of the CV but I doubt harried professors on search committees are going to take the time to do so.

I agree with the advice above that you need to enlist allies. Your committee is an obvious point of entry since it is also their job to help you finish. Do you know what your advisor's specific concerns are about the paper? Take those concerns to your committee (neutrally) and ask if they share them. If there's a sympathetic mentor you have, ask them how to navigate this situation. Get the director of graduate studies involved. If your paper is truly in good shape, and you're ready to graduate, and your advisor is unethically and unnecessarily holding you back - your DGS should know, particularly if she has a pattern of doing this.

I would argue that your PI's reasons absolutely matter, because you need to understand why she's holding up the paper and what you can do about it. Is it that she wants stronger, but more unrealistic/elusive results? Is it because she thinks the writing needs to be improved? Is it because she realizes if you graduate she'll lose a highly trained lab worker? All of these are different reasons with different solutions, so understanding her motivation is important to moving on.

As for your relationship with your PI...people have recovered from these before. I agree that you shouldn't burn the bridge if you don't have to, but if you have another mentor or close committee member who can delicately address the situation in a strong positive recommendation letter, it might be worth bombing the bridge if it means you graduate. A glowing recommendation from the PI means nothing if you are still wallowing in ABD-land years from now.

FWIW, I also became very cynical about the future of academic research and academia as a whole, which is why I left. (I have a non-academic research job at a private company; I start on Monday.) Like you, it wasn't imposter syndrome. I felt like a very smart, competent, competitive PhD-holder. The problem was that I felt like that wasn't enough to secure a good tenure-track job, given how scarce those positions are; furthermore, I was pretty sure I didn't want to do the work to get tenure, and the job of a professor didn't sound appealing to me. Geographical location was also important to me - I didn't want to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere. (Tried that for a year. It got old.) The much higher salary I was offered in the private sector didn't hurt, either.

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To add on to Juliet, I have a friend that just graduate and left for a non-academic appointment after a long time of struggling with the decision, and he couldn't be happier.

I'll also say that the talk I've heard worrying about time to degree comes mostly from much older faculty- younger faculty don't seem to think it's a big deal.

They care more about what your CV looks like, and what you can do now, not how long it took you to get there.

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I also want to say that this seems common to me. I used to work in a biochemistry lab, and I know one person is moving on to his 9th!!!! year in a PhD program (I think it's his 9th year... he won't talk about it even if I ask; he just says he's been here "too long"). 

I have a feeling that he's losing faith in what it means to do research because he looked deflated as soon as I told him that I was interested in a PhD in biology (when I joined the lab, I was interested in biology/neurobiology ...not anymore).

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I think you've gotten great advice already.  I just wanted to add this: I knew a girl who was in a very similar position.  I think she wound up taking 8-9 years for her biology PhD.  She was admitted to a good med school and is now a resident.

I'm not telling you to become a doctor, but I do think it's important to note that PhDs who take more time can meet success in their field and be readily accepted outside of it (even in highly competitive medicine). 

Good luck.


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