I'm sitting at a crossroads with my dissertation right now. I'm struggling to decide whether or not the best possible decision for me is to try and quickly finish my dissertation project or to stay here a 5th year. If I stay for the 5th year, one of my colleagues will be on the job market before me and I worry that may ruin my chances for an academic position. What is the best option?

--Early Bird Gets the Job?

Dear Early Bird,

Although it is true that the search for an academic position can be competitive, I do not believe it would be a problem to have two similar candidates in the job market around the same time.

The only problem would arise when there is one particular position a candidate is hoping for, and a colleague will have the opportunity to apply for that specific position first. However, I believe this is extremely rare, as most doctoral candidates apply for dozens of positions, with hopes of finding one institution that is a good fit.

Because of this non-issue, I think the best choice in this situation is to stay in the program for the 5th year. This decision will offer an additional year to polish research and teaching statements, so they will be pristine for next year’s round of job applications. More importantly, an additional year is a long time to enhance one’s Curriculum Vitae with publications, research projects, supplemental training, teaching opportunities, and community service. Furthermore, having an additional year can give you the time you need to make your dissertation really stand out.

I have seen numerous individuals rush through their time as a doctoral candidate, with many finishing in four years. For many of them, when they finish, they are not well-prepared for a tenure-track position in academia. There is something special that occurs for many students when they are conducting their dissertation research in their final years as students. When they have enough time in their graduate program, they seem to blossom into independent, confident researchers who easily stand out from the crowds of others who are in the job market (similar to obtaining a post-doctoral fellowship before applying for long-term positions). This extra time can help a student to develop into a more refined researcher. Indeed, I think remaining in your program for one final year would give you the edge you need to be more competitive in your job search than other applicants, including the colleague who “beat you to the finish line.”

On a final note, I would like to add that the benefit of the fifth and final year will most likely not extend to subsequent years. Once a student is in a position where they appear to be falling behind in their research, or are floundering with their final project, this can reflect poorly when they are finally in the job market. Indeed, I have seen many students who require 2-3 additional years to finish their degrees. In these situations, I often see their inherent devotion to research fade away because they become frustrated and bored in their program. Furthermore, faculty members become annoyed with these students. When you have over-stayed your welcome in a program (you may know if they threaten to cease funding), the benefits that come from enhancing your CV will no longer outweigh the costs associated with remaining in the program.

I hope this insight helped you. You know your situation better than anyone, so consider your options and make the decision that’s best for you. Thanks for writing in!

--René Paulson, PhD

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