PhD Milestones

A. Overview

The rate of progress of individual students depends on many factors, including previous preparation, the field of specialization, the type of financial support, and the rate at which a research project progresses. The average time to receive a degree, based on recent PhD graduates in the Department of Physics and Astronomy over the past five years, was 6.1 years. It is the department's goal to enable all PhD students to complete a doctoral degree in a timely fashion (4-7 years). For this purpose, it is important that students and faculty work together to ensure that each student is making appropriate progress and that the Department’s expectations are clearly communicated. The timeline below serves as a guideline and plays a role in annual evaluations of student accomplishments and the quality of faculty mentoring. 

B. Timeline indicating expected progress towards degree

The Table below outlines the rate at which students are expected to progress through the milestones associated with the Department’s graduate program.  Faculty in the department recognize that the progress of each student will vary, and for this reason rates of progress are defined in terms of various “zones,” rather than specific, department-wide cut-off dates for each milestone requirement.  The three zones – green, yellow, and red – are defined below. 

* A seven-year statute of limitations between passing your comprehensive exam and defending your PhD exists in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Green (optimal) zone:

Completing each milestone requirement within a Year/Term that is color-coded as green will yield a doctoral thesis in the expected 4-7 years.

Yellow (cautionary) zone:

This is considered to be a cautionary zone. This is especially true if performance is otherwise high (e.g., coursework is strong, the student has multiple research projects, the work has resulted in conference presentations and journal submissions), if research is delayed due to a sabbatical of an advisor, or if the student experienced a temporary research or personal setback that stalled progress for a short while. For other students, time in the Yellow Zone may be viewed with a high degree of concern by faculty. This is especially true when the outer range of the Yellow Zone is approaching without a successful Milestone event in sight, or when slow progress toward the degree is coupled with other signs of lackluster performance.

There are multiple factors that may place a student in this less optimal position. These include unanticipated research setbacks, a nonproductive student-advisor relationship, personal setbacks caused by physical or mental health problems, a low degree of enthusiasm about the academic research track, or a sense of isolation from the departmental faculty and graduate student peers. Regardless of the cause, it is imperative that students and faculty work together to identify the causes behind a problematic level of performance and develop a plan for positive change. Students should not wait for faculty to determine that a problem exists – instead, if they are concerned about their progress they should confer with their advisor, Dissertation Committee members, the Director of Graduate Studies, and/or the Departmental Chair. Depending upon the factors that have slowed performance, appropriate actions could include changing research projects, adjusting the scope of a Milestone, switching advisors, seeking clinical care, asking for a leave of absence from the program, etc.

Red (danger) zone:

Students who reach the Red Zone will be placed on Provisional Status. Entry into Provisional Status will trigger a formal letter outlining the performance criteria that need to be met (including dates for successful completion) to avoid even more formal actions, such as progression to University Probation or termination from the student’s doctoral training program. Students on provisional status are unable to be assigned as a Teaching Assistant or be eligible for other departmental funding. Students may, however, be supported as a GSR, if the faculty member is so inclined.

Note: The School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh mandates that any graduate student who does not finish and defend their dissertation within seven years of completing the Comprehensive Examination must retake the Examination.