From the Science Student Council

Are we there yet?: Finishing graduate school on time

Advice for graduate students on how to complete a doctorate in a timely manner

By Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz

Did you know? In 2008, the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates showed that the average time to complete a doctorate in social sciences, including psychology, is 7.7 years. Surely, we would all like to do something to bring this figure down, but what? Here are some tips brought to you by the Science Student Council.

Selection, Selection, Selection – The número uno rule of this game is choosing your graduate program wisely. Multiple considerations go into this decision, but the average time it takes students to complete their PhD should be high on your list. Ask faculty members and current students about the graduation requirements. What is the average time to graduation? Is there a recent trend in this respect? If you are interested in working with a specific advisor, ask about the average amount of time it takes to graduate under that advisor’s tutelage. This can also initiate an interesting conversation about that advisor’s mentoring style.

If you are in the lion’s mouth already, what can you do? Early in your graduate student career talk to your advisor to get a good idea about what is expected for you to graduate. After this conversation, develop a tentative plan in which you integrate your goals and your advisor’s expectations. Be aware that projects will usually take longer than you expect. Factor this in and always have a plan B in case your results do not corroborate your hypotheses or you run into problems that do not allow you to execute a project. Discuss this plan with your advisor to get a sense of its feasibility. Furthermore, when the time comes, choose your dissertation committee wisely. Ask more senior graduate students about their experience with different faculty members in their dissertation committee. Aim to select a group that will work well together and strive to improve your research, but also advocate for you to graduate in a timely manner.

Envision your dissertation. The earlier you envision how your work will fit together into a cohesive story, the sooner you will graduate. How will your dissertation chapters be organized? Are there projects that you are working on that do not fit into these chapters? Every so often take a step back and determine whether there are gaps in your research. Imagine your dissertation talk. What slides will you use to motivate your work? Do all aspects of your research directly address this motivation? It is easy as a graduate student to go off on tangents of a project. Sometimes these tangents lead to unexpected discoveries, but make sure that this pursuit does not lead you too far from your research plan and your primary motivation. Keep in mind that the strongest dissertations are not those with the most pages; often, they are the focused dissertations that have comprehensively addressed a single motivating question.

A final word of advice – as a graduate student, be ambitious, but be PRACTICAL. A research career has many stages, and graduate school is one of them. As your career moves along, you will have the opportunity to explore many topics, learn different techniques and publish in your field’s highest impact journals. Do not try to cram every aspiration into your PhD stage. Remember that a postdoc experience, a future collaboration, or taking a summer course are excellent options for pursuing these interests without racking up years to complete graduate school.


Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz is the chair and biopsychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He recently obtained his PhD in neuroscience from New York University where his research focused on the role of the amygdala in fear-motivated behaviors. Currently he is a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.