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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Scientia Est Experientia | Main | Posters and Pickiness »

September 1, 2010

How Long Would It Take - If Everything Worked?

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Posted by Derek

Over at BoingBoing, they're investigating the question: "How long would your PhD have taken if everything worked the first time?" I have to admit, it took me a few minutes to adjust my head to that idea, since God knows, nothing in my PhD ever looked like working the first time.

And it's a hard one to answer, because I had to do some backtracking, as so often happens in total synthesis. This was of the "Dang it all, turns out I can't install that carbon at that step, so I'm going to have to go back, put it in earlier, and hope the downstream stuff still works" variety. (Not all of it did, of course). So how do you account for tactical moves like that? There are several layers.

How long would it have taken if I'd chosen the right move each time, and each reaction worked on the first shot? Even then, that's a tricky one, because one typically runs things on a test scale and then on larger amounts as the ground firms up beneath you. So if things had worked every time, just fine, and I'd scaled up as soon as they did each time. . I'd say around a year. Maybe even nine months; it's hard to say, because the concept of everything working is so alien.

Then one could ask, how long would it take to run through the chemistry in your dissertation, straight through, knowing what there is to know about it? In that case, it would be shorter. Just flogging away at the procedures, nonstop, and having nothing go wrong along the way (hah!), I think you could beat through everything in mine in two or three months. Boy howdy, would I hate doing that.

What does that leave out, then, of a degree that took me four and a half years? (A flippin' short span, I might add, considering some of the other degrees coming out of my old group). Well, there are all those false starts down synthetic routes that ended up painting me into corners. Being carbohydrate-based synthesis, many of those were protecting group problems, but there were a couple of rip-the-whole-sequence-up episodes, too, when things just wouldn't go any further. And there were things like finding out that a base camp of material I'd stored in the freezer had gone to hell anyway, in the dark, under argon. And realizing that a TBDMS group had up and migrated on me, such annoyances as that, which also involve proving that it happened and making sure that I knew where everything was still attached.

And there's an awful lot of time spent just getting each reaction to work - six or eight or ten ways to bring in a methyl group. Four or five different reduction conditions. All those choices, every time: borane THF or borane-dimethylsulfide? Swern or PCC? Hydrogenation catalysts, Lewis acids, finding out that switching from BuLi to KHMDS when making methylene Wittig reagent changed the yield of alkene from 10% to 90%. Chip, chip, chip, at every step along the way. At the time, it seemed as if my legs were mired in not-so-fresh concrete, three feet deep across the lab. Looking back, though, I think I must have been flying. . .

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


COMMENTS

1. CRH on September 1, 2010 11:40 AM writes...

Well, the one part that isn't addressed...if everything worked you would still be around for 4-5 years because the PI would find more things for your magic fingers to work on.

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2. Hap on September 1, 2010 11:58 AM writes...

I think #1 has it - at least one of the advisors in my grad school would tend to hold onto people who were effective - not enough to be punitive, but longer than their research probably merited. Particularly in a competitive funding environment, and with the total control an advisor has over your career, I think that (most) advisors would simply hold people longer.

The only thing that might hinder that would be if the gov't didn't fund as much because they didn't need to pay people to fish around and find what worked, or if schools could just hire everyone (because everything works - why spend on superstars?) and took much more control over grad students as a consequence. [Of course, they might just do the same - why waste cheap labor? - or maybe they would outsource too (take the grants and run), and start charging students to be grad students in chemistry (real money, not just grants). There nothing that necessarily makes me trust unis to look out for their students.]

If you don't know what you're doing (or aren't thinking enough), then having everything work isn't helpful, because you aren't learning what does and doesn't work, you don't really know how to get anywhere if it stops. Also, as with the Texas Tech incident, something bad could happen when something works that you shouldn't have been doing in the first place.

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3. Anonymous on September 1, 2010 11:59 AM writes...

Graduate course work=2 years
Reasearch 0.5 to 1 year

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4. p on September 1, 2010 12:05 PM writes...

This also leaves out the problem of what you learned.

In this imaginary sequence in which everything worked the first time, what did you learn along the way? Did you learn to solve problems, consider alternatives? I would argue that you probably wouldn't under those conditions.

If you had that PhD - let's say 2 years - where every reaction worked the first time and the rest is course work - would you be of any value to a company? Would you be able to come up with your own ideas or create work arounds? Or would you go to pieces the first time a reaction went south?

I guess you need to specify: are you someone for whom every reaction will always work, in which case you're infinitely valuable or did you get lucky? In which case you have almost zero value.

It also leaves out the question of who designed the synthesis. If you designed you're own synthesis and it worked perfectly, then you're probably pretty damned good. If your boss designed it and then you carried it out, you'd have value as a tech. Is that how PhDs get used in pharma companies? My sense is not, but I don't actually know.

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5. Wavefunction on September 1, 2010 12:07 PM writes...

I think #1 nails it. A colleague of mine had golden hands and literally made everything work the first time around. His advisor realized that his goose could lay golden eggs and refused to let the guy go for 7 years until he finally got a warning from the department chairman.

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6. p on September 1, 2010 12:19 PM writes...

By the way, I don't disagree that a fair number of PIs would try to hang on to the perfect student. Certainly the perfect student shouldn't be kept around longer than others, but it isn't clear to me that simply carrying out someone else's orders perfectly is sufficient for a PhD.

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7. Chris on September 1, 2010 12:32 PM writes...

Isn't this about as esoteric as asking "How long would it take to get the next blockbuster drug on the market starting from a newly validated target? Just disregard all the FDA stuff, I only want an answer based on the science."

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8. Petros on September 1, 2010 1:27 PM writes...

18 months of work in the WDF!

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9. RM on September 1, 2010 1:48 PM writes...

A corollary to #1 is that if *everyones'* stuff worked the first time, "Ph.D. level work" would be redefined to be the harder, more complex stuff.

You can see this clearly in biochemistry. 30-40 years ago you could practically get a Ph.D. for simply cloning a already known gene. Now that we have near foolproof kits to do it, it might only get a paragraph in your dissertation, and before they hand you your sheepskin, your committee will want you to have cloned dozens of similar genes, and have characterized them all.

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10. dsa on September 1, 2010 2:20 PM writes...

Continuing my ramblings about computer science today: There is also a perception that longer average time to degree means a better school. So if one had the perfect advisor who could whisper the secret to experimental success into the ear of each new student, he would like be obliged to hold onto his students for longer to avoid bringing down the departmental average.

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11. CMCguy on September 1, 2010 2:32 PM writes...

In group where I got my PhD we actually used to talk about this point fairly regularly as people neared completion of writing their dissertations with the 6-12 months timeframe generally projected. A bit humbling in one sense but as suggested was as much, if not more, learned by failures encountered. Typically the greatest non-technical lesson is one of perseverance which can serve well for working in most industry positions.

In terms of holding on to those with the golden touch, although rarely seen done, best PI might do is to retain someone as a Post-doc for an additional year after obtaining their PhD. Probably not as good a situation for the student would should benefit for another lab/adviser but would help PI get a better ROI.

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12. SR on September 1, 2010 3:11 PM writes...

I concur with the first post. The idea of a PhD taking less time if everything works is a myth. In the end, you are rewarded for your extra work with the task of writing a longer dissertation!

In all seriousness, the quality of a PhD shouldn't be based on how long it took, but the amount and quality of the research accomplished. If you are blessed with the golden hands then it is ultimately in your best interest to use them as much as possible for 5-7 years so you can walk out with a nice looking resume/CV.

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13. Anon on September 1, 2010 5:53 PM writes...

First post is spot-on. My first year, they had one of those Grad Student Social things where they stick all the first years in a room with the more senior grad students and tell you to eat bad pizza and be social. Bright-eyed first years all valiantly made an effort to chat with the silent and despondent senior students, and finally one of us asked, "so, how long have you all been here?" Turned out most of them had not only been there six or seven years already, but most had first author publications in several journals and had written up the dissertation over a year ago. They had thought they'd just defend after that, only to be told that three mere years of teaching were insufficient given the size of the new pre-med undergrad class, and [advisor] had all these other projects he needed help on, so...

After that I transferred to a program where they let people out in five years (engineering) if you finished a checklist of stuff. I heard from a few people who left with a MS that this issue had come to the attention of certain administrators who were concerned about the reputation this was giving the science programs, and the result was that PIs marched into their labs and flatly told most of their students they would be defending in a week, so get your s*** together, and if you're not ready it's an MS after eight years of work.

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14. R J Raymond on September 1, 2010 6:16 PM writes...

Since from a former post on this blog we know that Europeans have a comparably robust drug industry, I wonder how it is the US continues to assert the need for a 5,6 even 7 year PhD+ post-doc when their European peers produce an equal or likely superior scientist in only 3.5 years?

It's funny I never even hear anyone questioning this state of affairs (courtesy the ACS brain-washing no doubt).

P.S -All my European friends are still employed.

Permalink to Comment

15. provocateur on September 1, 2010 6:49 PM writes...

all the discussion is hypothetical..
How much time would you save if your dept./prof has a LCMS(which is there in almost every company now)

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16. Toluene on September 1, 2010 8:42 PM writes...

Got to agree with #4

Most of the stuff I've learned in life has been from failures, and certainly throughout my life as a medicinal chemist I've found the most interesting chemistry arises from an unexpected reaction product. Finding that several reacion steps do not work helps develop problem-solving skills which are invaluable in the marketplace. Everyone performs well when everything works as it should--it's how you perform under diffucult conditions (deadlines, problematic synthesis, handling management issues) which separates the men from the boys!

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17. bcpmoon on September 2, 2010 12:48 AM writes...

A PhD took ~3 years in my old group.*
The Boingboing question boils down to: How long would it take a accomplished tech to repeat all the procedures in the experimental part? I am not sure if that is an intelligent question at all.
Because that is not what a PhD is about.
(In medicine, now thats something different...)

of course, boundary conditions: Normal workload, average skills, average luck, average safety. Outliers notwithstanding.

Permalink to Comment

18. eraser on September 2, 2010 3:04 AM writes...

#14
Don't forget that in many, if not most, European countries (e.e. Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavian countries etc) you do a M.Sc. Before you start your Ph.D. Many people even do both M.Sc. and PhD. research in the same group. This adds another 2 years to your study time so that in the end you have a 3-4 years B.Sc. a two year M.Sc. (or a direct M.Sc. in 5 years) and then 3-5 years of Ph.D, depending on the place. According to the ACS the aeverage time for a US Chemistry Ph.D. is around 6 years.

Of course there are countries like the UK where you do not do a M.Sc. and still have a 3.5 year Ph.D. i.e. the UK.

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19. Chemystery on September 2, 2010 3:33 AM writes...

A rule of thumb in the group I did mine in was that you needed one good year.

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20. RB Woodweird on September 2, 2010 8:02 AM writes...

A better question might be "How much would you have learned if everything you did worked the first time?" Discovery is all about pushing the envelope, out in the area where you are constantly taking fliers, where failure is not only an option but is most probable. If everything worked, you did nothing much novel.

And what kind of scientist would you be if you never had to overcome failure? Most of us ended up like the boy named Sue. We got tough or got out. And if you were lucky, you got to run into your PI in Gatlinburg and kick his arse out in the street, in the mud, the blood, and the beer.

To cheer you up, though, S.A. has made A Novel and Efficient Synthesis of Cadaverine free for download. Just google scribd and the title.

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21. come on on September 2, 2010 8:12 AM writes...

How long is a piece of string?

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22. CYTIRPS on September 2, 2010 8:42 AM writes...

Many top grad schools have a 5 year limit since they have top talent coming in every year. For the so so grad schools, they just want cheap TA since undergrad is the major income. Honestly, no one can predict research. Research is to find out what we do not know. The length is totally controlled by the advisers/sponsors and how they spin the objectives. For the grad students in the real world, it depends on the economy. If the job market is good, one should get out as soon as possible. At present, stick around and re-evaluate the prospect. It is not a bad idea to change field. After all, we still have to eat-to-live.

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23. 107° on September 2, 2010 9:26 AM writes...

to be added to the fact that we do get a M.Sc. before to start a PhD program (which definitely increases the level of 1st year students), many university do not provide a gradschool that can be called this way. Unfortunately, what we gained before it's lost after as we lack that "advanced" teaching that you get in US grad school.
With that being said, I find excessive to keep a student for 6,7 years in the same lab. I'd rather fixed a limit (I'd say 5) after which you should (and if not it's anyway too late) have a reasonable amount of results to be able to write a dissertation

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24. Evorich on September 2, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

#14 & #18 - the reason for the difference stems from high school education. In the UK & Europe students are forced to specialise in their last 2 years of high school on 3 to 4 classes. They then take an undersgraduate degree in a single subject. There is no need from 16 onwards to have a "rounded" education. This is great for pre-training for a PhD and no extra classes are needed in the first 2 years like in the US. It's a terrible system if you have no idea what you want to do with your life like most 16-18 year olds that ever existed!

Stuff not working is a fundemental part of the scientific process and of the learning in a PhD. In this respect, stuff that "didn't work" actually did work. My PhD took 3 years by both measures.

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25. HB on September 3, 2010 8:50 AM writes...

Stop me if I'm wrong - but the point of getting a Ph.D is (supposedly) to develop as an independent researcher. That is, someone who approach and tackle a scientific problem. Not everyone takes the same amount of time to develop the personality, discipline, and skill sets required for this.

So, that ought to answer the question

One of the many PROBLEMS in academia is that many people have been abusing the Ph.D. process as a "shortcut" to the upper middle class (i.e. to acquire a somewhat high-paying job).

Many people are managing to get through the process without developing that admirable quality I mentioned previously. Interviewers at companies aren't fooled. It's not just about the sheepskin.

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26. Zach on September 10, 2010 9:32 PM writes...

Shortcut to upper middle class? I wish I went to your grad school.

The people I knew who did have everything work out (coming on to a working experiment, etc) still took four or five years to graduate. It just doesn't make sense to change institutions in less than five years -- at that point you're short on experience, not publications.

Working in Europe, I meet a lot of postdocs with the 3 year PhD. They end up having to choose low risk, low payoff projects to guarantee results in time, and end up taking an extra postdoc anyways. The advantage of doing it that way is lost on me.

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