Am I Done Yet?

When should a graduate student go on the market? Fabio Rojas offers suggestions.

September 29, 2010

When should you go on the job market?

You have to figure out what kind of discipline you are in. Some disciplines kick people out in four to six years. I call these “short clock.” Engineering, economics, and biomedical sciences fit this mold. Others are more extreme. In many cases, you can stay in graduate school for 10 (!) years and still be considered "fresh." I call these "long clock." My own discipline, sociology, is somewhere in the middle. Some folks graduate in five or six years, but others are allowed to stay quite a while. The culture of your discipline determines how it is that you go about graduating.

Before moving on, I should note that staying too long can have dire consequences. Students can become unmarketable, dissertations are out of date, departments may cut funding. Students who have spent too much time in graduate school will be seen as folks who can’t get stuff done, which makes it hard to get a job. If you knew someone was in grad school for 12 years with one modest publication, wouldn’t you be a little suspicious? It behooves you to figure out the norm in your field and stick to it.

Short clock disciplines: In these fields, graduate school is about two years of course work, an exam or two, and maybe a master's-level paper. There is very little teaching, compared to other fields. Then, at the end of year three or four, you produce a "job market paper" which demonstrates your potential as a researcher.

Short clock disciplines do not expect much from grad students. You don’t need a long list of publications or even a terribly well-developed paper – because you’ve only been working on it a year or so. These disciplines tend to rely heavily, almost exclusively, on adviser recommendations and Ph.D. program reputation because there is not much else to go on. The bottom line is that most students who make it to candidacy will soon be kicked out, whether they like it or not. So get smart: get an adviser with a good track record and make sure your job market paper is great.

Long clock disciplines: In these fields, people take many years to complete and there is no "normal" time to degree. The humanities are notorious, as are some sciences. What happens in these fields is that you do the course work and the doctoral exam, but then you either (a) drift into massive teaching loads or (b) begin conceptualizing this vague, broad dissertation. Either way, no one expects you to finish quickly. Six years might be considered fast.

Unlike short clock disciplines, you will not be kicked or nudged out after X years. You will be allowed to drift indefinitely. If you don’t finish your dissertation, no one will remind you. If you dedicate all your time to teaching, no one will care. Even if you do finish your dissertation, people will sit on it for semesters and nothing will happen. To blunt, the graduate school system is not designed to help you graduate in a reasonable amount of time. It’s designed to waste your time.

So how on earth do people graduate in departments where no one lifts a finger to help you? A few paths:

  • Get published: Once you get published in real journal, then many faculty will let you graduate. Why? Publication is often a prerequisite for a job. If you are published, no one feels bad about letting you go on the job market. It also shows that you are serious about your career. The higher ranked the journal, the better.
  • Demand it: Sometimes you simply have to be pushy. I’ve seen cases where a person has published, written their dissertation, and still nothing happens. You just have to say (politely), “What else can I do to complete my degree?” If that fails, see the graduate chair or dean. Be a jerk. If people aren’t letting you graduate, they are costing you money and wasting your time.
  • Get a job: In some programs, they don’t let you graduate until you get a job. If that’s the case, graduation is actually simple. Publish first (or write a good job market paper in short clock fields). Then go on the job market. When you get the job offer, you’ll see that the dissertation hearing gets scheduled fairly quickly.

In other words, long clock fields require that you make the active choice to graduate. You simply need to will it to happen. Scout your area and figure it out, even if it takes a year or two. May seem odd, but is it not like the rest of life? You’ll never get anywhere until you take the initiative.


Fabio Rojas is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington. This essay is adapted from a blog post at


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