How to finish your Ph.D. in less than three years?

“What year of your Ph.D. are you at?” This is a question that all Ph.D. students hate, and everyone knows it is like asking a woman about their age. The hard feeling that comes with this question is that a Ph.D. student might spend 4 to 7 years in the program and as soon as you enter the fourth year, students feel they are behind and something is not right. Something is wrong with them, they are not smart enough or  stuck! But can we change this feeling and the tradition of “you must spend at least four years in your Ph.D. program? The answer is YES and I am sharing some tips about how I finished my Ph.D. in less than three years, publishing 7 journal articles from my thesis, filing a patent, and still presenting at conferences and serving in leadership roles as a volunteer.

Know the “Key Performance Indicators” (KPIs). When I first decided to do a Ph.D., I asked myself whether  I have to spend a minimum of four years to get a decorate degree and competency. I had to ask myself this because I did not have the luxury of staying in my Ph.D. program for that long. I was the mother of three kids, I was new to Canada and while I had an established life back home, I had to start from zero spending  extra years in my career. So, I asked my supervisor “what is required for a Ph.D. degree and to become a knowledgeable doctor in my field?” The answer was in order to finish my Ph.D. with great standards, I needed to have at least four peer-reviewed publications, acquire  in-depth knowledge of what I did  with my Ph.D., and bring novel solutions, as well as  learning to become a researcher and a leader. 

I wanted to break my supervisor’s record of having at least 15 peer-reviewed journal articles after my Ph.D. So, I had to work hard. Regardless, from my experience with graduate students, I know you’ve got to focus on your program more than anything to succeed. A full-time job, watching Netflix, and having late-night parties are not on my plate. I replaced some of my recreational time with developing  my soft skills, such as leadership, event planning, and communication. COVID-19 hit while everyone was still in a panic. I took the chance and went to the lab, working hard to complete my experiments.  I admit that having the lab for myself for a while helped!

On top of the list, the key player to help you finish your Ph.D. in a shorter than prescribed time is your “Supervisor”. Supervisors are like a parent with many children, while the child who puts in the most effort gets the most attention. You need to get attention (you don’t want to be a child who gets attention with negative actions, haha)! There is a term called “Managing Upper Management” which is very crucial in Ph.D. student and supervisor relations. You should  know how to manage your supervisor because they are busy individuals, and you need to help them remember you. (1) Make sure to meet them at least once a week one-on-one. Stick this meeting time to their calendar. (2) Deadlines are not only for students, but also for supervisors. Professionally and politely set deadlines for each other and follow up. For example, when you need your paper to be reviewed by your supervisor, you don’t want it to stay on their desk for a year until all the references need to be updated. Clear communication and deadlines help with creating a positive environment and relationship. (3) Be a student, not an employee! Make sure to treat your supervisor as a mentor and discuss everything freely. Also, help him/her grow in their career as well since their success is yours and vice versa.

Another stakeholder of your Ph.D. is your research team members. The key to getting my experiments done in a time-efficient manner was collaboration. As much as a Ph.D. work needs to be done individually, there are parts where  you can get help from your research mates and get ahead of time. I’ve gotten help from my fellows and helped them with their work. It was a win-win situation. We not only got the work done faster but also learned about each other’s research which helped us get a broader knowledge of the topic and succeed in our careers. Besides this, giving small parts of my research work to Master of Engineering Students as a small project and supervising them closely was another great way of speeding up the process and getting leadership skills. These were all great ways to collaborate, learn, and get my research questions answered in no time.

Getting organized is another aspect of Ph.D. life. I made sure to make a balance in my life by getting every small detail on my Calendar. I would put sample collection time, experiment timelines, courses, writing, and all related tasks to my Ph.D. on my special calendar. I have also created a separate calendar for my family and my volunteering tasks. Besides the calendar, I had sheets tracking my publications. I would routinely go and check what my progress was and prioritize the tasks. 

Start writing from day one of your program. I wrote my thesis as I started the program, not waiting until the last minute or year. I had the luxury of performing shorter experiments because of the nature of my experiment and I understand not everyone can do this if their experiment needs to run for more than a year. Regardless, you can still write reviews and predictions of your results or just write on what you are observing even if it is not what you are looking for and your experiment has failed. Write why did your experiment fail. What did you do differently to get in running again? Trust me you can publish this work too, and it is valuable information!  

In conclusion, to get your Ph.D. done in less than four years, you want your supervisors, peers, friends, and family to be champions of your success by managing them and their involvement. Know what you need for your goal, get organized as a manager, start writing from day one of the program, and get your work published as it comes out! No one prescription works for everyone. Reading this, you might think “I can’t do all these!” . It is ok. Your situation is for sure different, so be creative and see what works best for you. But start thinking and acting now. It is never late, and it does not matter at which year of Ph.D. you are. Good luck. 

written by Farokh Laqa KakarPresident of IWA YWP Canada

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