When should you (or your students) defend?

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.

10 thoughts on “When should you (or your students) defend?

  1. Heya! Not sure if it’s a recent change, but the color scheme of this blog (deep orange, black over dark gray) makes it really hard to read. I can attach a screenshot if you could let me know of an email to contact regards to this blog. Other than that, I’m always thankful for the content! Thanks!

  2. I feel like my field is pretty straightforward. We generally do staple theses, so if you have three papers published or nearly published, then you’re ready to graduate. We also have a rather protracted job cycle, so nearly everyone applies for postdocs in the fall before defending in the spring. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions are made based on discussions with one’s advisor. I was lucky enough to have a thoughtful advisor and be in a system with annual thesis committee meetings, so the discussions of future plans were built in along the way (which I feel is a good thing since some people aren’t so lucky to have thoughtful advisors).

    • so in your field/school, “ready” is defined as 3 papers submitted/published — but you also say that people are aiming for spring defenses and applying in the fall? so people try to submit around that timeline (and/or are advised to do so)?

      • Well, ~3 papers–there is some variation in theory vs. experimental, if it’s a massive project or a more typical series of modular projects etc… The individual papers are submitted to journals along the way. So ideally one gets submitted at year ~3 (the first year or two is spent taking classes), another at year ~4, and another at year ~5/6 just before one starts applying for jobs. Many people (I’d say most people) spend almost their entire final fall semester applying for postdoc positions (most apply to 10-20 postdoc positions, which have application similar to other fields’ faculty applications, but at half the length) and getting little research done (well, unless they’re behind on paper count, then the fall is rather hellacious). People generally know where they’ll land in mid to late March. The spring is spent writing a wrapper intro/conclusion for the thesis and tying up loose research ends.

        • Thanks for explaining. I wonder if this (clearly well reasoned) model will be able to continue though – both as degree graduates outnumber available postdocs and as funding rates fall (reducing the available postdoc slots and jobs beyond that). Also interesting that it’s based on assuming that postdocs will all be available in the summer/fall.

          • Good question. My field currently has postdoc positions for basically anyone who wants one (as long as you aren’t “picky” and don’t mind moving across the globe and applying to 20+ jobs anyway; if you’re picky you’re basically screwed) which ends up being ~50% of grad students who self-select in/out (at least from ~R1 schools; lower tier I can’t speak to). But my field’s funding rate is approaching, if not already at, <10% right now… so the future is looking shaky. My field also has a substantial number of independent postdoc fellowships which basically drives the fall job season deadlines (and maybe startup-funded postdocs I guess) since advisors want to compete for the best students. I can imagine this is a pain if people get their grants off season. I know I made inquiries about some off-season jobs and they really couldn't delay their start dates… so too bad for them and one less application to write for me!

            I think I started mid-summer because that's what worked for me and my postdoc advisor. I know plenty of people who defend in the summer to hit their schools' early fall/late summer graduation date and they seem to be able to work that out with their new advisors. Some folks who move to national labs will do so off-cycle as well (particularly since their fellowships have three deadlines per year), and I know at least one person who just wrapped up super quick because they got one of these off-season jobs. But generally everyone gets a job before they defend, just in case, off season or not.

  3. In my case I’d set a defense date about a month after my advisor and I figured I had a big enough pile of words and diagrams and needed to polish them off. And the date was about a month before the submission deadline for graduation in the semester, which seemed like plenty of time for any necessary revisions (that turned out not to be). But I had a first post-grad-school job already lined up. It was overseas so there were a couple extra months needed to get foreign-talent paperwork lined up. But mostly this let me finish off the semester perhaps over-ranked for what I was doing. Still I had enough time to clean out my apartment and take a last tour of the area in my own good time, and not get too near running out of money before the new paycheck game in.

  4. Thanks for this – it’s always really interesting knowing how it works in other countries and disciplines.
    UK/Social Science perspective: you ought to finish in 4 years, although it often creeps into a fifth year. Because almost no-one is ready until at least mid-way through your 4th year, you tend to submit at some point between May – September, and the defense is arranged for as soon as can be after that. Usually c. 2 months later. You don’t tend to bother going onto the job market until you have defended unless it truly is that post which is perfect fit for your CV, as jobs/fellowships are rare, and oversubscribed, and the first step is to weed out anyone who hasn’t actually finished yet. (The last fellowship I applied for had 800 applications for c. 40 grants – 5%). There is rarely support for people in the year after they finish and while they apply for stuff, but if your supervisor likes you they will try and find you some work – mine was able to support me for 3 months with work, and then I got a part time post as a journal copy editor, and then a months consulting, and then an actual post-doc. But it’s just expected that it will be a tough year unless you’re lucky.

  5. I have a set number of first-author papers, N, needed for graduation. (N used to be 3, now it’s higher because the funding agency that gives me much of my money has amped up the criteria for what constituted adequate productivity, so basically as student has to have a paper per year on average; my students finish in 5 years on average.) When the N-1st paper is accepted for publication, the student has a green light to start looking for jobs. Usually, by the time they are done interviewing, the Nth paper has been drafted. When they get an offer they plan to accept, I recommend a start date of no less than 2 months from the point of offer. That’s enough to wrap up the dissertation (basically, write intro and some filler around the papers), finish working on the Nth paper, clean up their code documentation, and do the more mundane stuff like get an apartment, round up committee members (that’s surprisingly hard!), etc.

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