At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)? If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?
The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated. I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else. So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.
What’s so complicated then? Lots of things. An example: students who TA can’t leave in the middle of the semester, or else they will have to pay back their tuition remission. So most students graduate at the end of semesters. No big deal, right? But that’s not necessarily when jobs start, or even postdocs.
How can students (and advisors) time defenses to help students best be ‘ready’ to successfully leap into The Next Thing? Should students defend right before graduating, even if they don’t have something lined up? Should students defend far in ‘advance’ of actually leaving, to give themselves time to revise their thesis (on paid time) and line up The Next Thing?
Norms seem to vary widely by advisor, school, and field of study. Many folks in the humanities, especially aiming to continue on in academia, I’ve spoken with defend FAR in advance of actually leaving. Many end up depositing their dissertation 6 months or a year after their defense. In fact, several mentioned being advised by faculty to go on the job market indicating on their CV that they had already defended – the faculty saying this would be a plus in the eyes of the job committee, in that they were “really ABD” and ready to take a position.
Conversely, in the life sciences, I’ve heard very different approaches. Many students mentioned that they hadn’t thought about this and that their faculty advisors had never discussed this aspect of career development with them. One mentioned that their advisor said it “didn’t matter” when they defended or graduated since “postdocs are always available.” Current grant funding rates and employment rates seem to indicate otherwise. Other students mentioned defending and then nominally becoming a postdoc in their same lab under the same advisor until they found a new position – this gave them greater flexibility to leave than student status and is viewed (at least by these students and their advisors, and hopefully their future employers) as improving their CV.
There are lots of additional considerations as well. Does the student have a partner whose employment also needs transitioning (or not)? Does the student have a kid whose needs (perhaps not moving them in the middle of a school year) also must be met? Is the student pregnant or trying to have a kid (which at least complicates things in the US, since even unpaid employment protections for pregnant/new mothers don’t generally kick in until you’ve worked someplace for 1 year)? Does the student have to worry about whether employment options are available in institutions and locations that are accepting of their status (perhaps as gay, trans, POC, or PWD)?
There’s lots of debate on how to identity the holes in “the leaky pipeline” that prevents diversifying the faculty, admin, and leadership roles in the academy. I am convinced that this, timing of defense and how to move on, is a critical part of the pipeline conversation – and that if we want to have a more inclusive, fair, and diverse academia in the future, we need to talk about this.
Do you as an advisor consider these factors and/or discuss them with your students when trying to help them imagine and plan their transition from your group onto The Next Thing? Do you (or did you) as a student yourself? Please share in the comments below.