October 5! Save the date! No – I’m not getting married – I’m (hopefully) getting PhD-ed! Today I finally got my PhD thesis defense date, aka my dissertation defense aka my viva – whatever you want to call it, it’s the day I give a “public” presentation of the work I’ve been doing over the past 5 years, followed by a 1-2 hour grilling by a panel of prominent scientists who will determine my fate!

I thought I would be happier, but it just seems so far away – especially since there were some stressful scheduling snafus that kept pushing it farther away! Also kinda dampering my excitement is that the in-person-ness is still TBD. I really really want my family to be able to come see it in person. They’ll really be crushed if it’s just over Zoom. And part of what’s making it hard for me is the uncertainty of it – if I knew it would be Zoom-ed I would at least be able to come to terms with it. But at this point it’s in limbo… Trying to focus on the positive though – I have a date! I have a date! A very important date!

So what exactly is the deal with this date – well, I’m still not entirely sure, because I don’t really know anything about the closed-door grilling part, but here’s the gist of how it fits into the “getting a PhD process…” Also, this process will vary from program to program, but how it works here is…

When you enroll, you’re a “PhD student” – you take a bunch of classes and pass those and you do several research rotations, testing out different labs. And then you choose a lab. But you can’t start yet – you’ve gotta pass your qualifying exams (your quals) and become a “PhD candidate.” The format of these exams differs dramatically from place to place, but here they gave us a broad research topic and several papers to get us started and then we had to do a literature review on that topic, write a written report on it, give an oral presentation on it, and then hold our own in a grilling on it. 

My topic was “copper” (told you these were broad!). It actually turned out to be really interesting, learning about various ways the body uses and regulates copper. And I even ended up writing an article about dogs and copper… https://massivesci.com/articles/copper-storage-disease-inbred-dogs/ 

Turns out I got the topic because one of my qualifying exam committee members was looking into the topic and I gave him a free literature review! 

Once you pass your quals you get that “PhD Candidate” title. Usually I just say “PhD student” unless I’m writing an email to someone senior in academia, in which case I usually put “PhD Candidate.” 

At this point, you’re ready to embark on research! But what are you going to research? You get half a year to kinda figure that out. Your first project might not pan out (I spent a few months chasing some dead ends) so it’s good you have time before you have to submit your “Thesis proposal” which is a written report telling them what you plan to research – what are your research aims (usually ~3 of these), what are the sub-aims, how do you aim to achieve your aims, what are some potential problems with your proposed plans and what are your backup plans, etc. You also include why you aim to achieve your aims – what gap in the research does it seek to fill? What broader significance might your findings have? You turn that in, the committee hopefully reads it, and then you have to orally defend it (this is where I broke down it tears…but I passed!)

Oh – I forgot to tell you about that committee. It’s different from your quals committee (but members might overlap). Here you get to choose (at least some of) who’s on it. There are 2 givens – your PI (lab head, research mentor) and your academic mentor (most schools don’t have one of these I don’t think). Then you choose 2 other scientists whose input you think would be especially valuable. One of these people will serve as your “committee chair.” You can also add more members later (I added one which turned out to be really helpful even if it made my committee 4/5 male instead of 3/5). Some schools have you add an external committee member who’s outside of your institution, but here we don’t have an external person until the end.

Once you get that green-light on your proposal defense you can start doing all that stuff you told them you were gonna do. Hopefully it will work out, but if not, you can change course as needed. They’re scientists, so they should understand that things don’t always go according to plan!

Over the next few years, you meet with your committee twice a year for progress meetings, and you turn in progress reports beforehand which can be a pain, but really help when it comes time to write papers and your thesis. At these meetings you give a presentation of the progress you’ve made since the last meeting and then answer questions, etc. These are, at least in my experience, much less grilly than the qual & proposal defense meetings. They still ask a lot of tough questions, but they also offer good suggestions and stuff. And they can be great for bouncing ideas off of. They got a lot more comfortable over time as I became “the expert” on my project and felt like I could better take control of the meetings.

When your committee thinks you don’t need any more meetings, they’ll give you the “green light” to start writing your thesis. Some people have told me that “thesis” refers to a Master’s thesis and “dissertation” refers to the PhD thing. But when I asked on Twitter, people said it’s the opposite in the UK. And other places “thesis” is used for both. Our school calls it a thesis, I’ve always called it a thesis, and so I plan to keep calling it a thesis. But be aware of that. Anyways, this doubly-named thing I’m talking about is a really long (100-200ish page) report going into lots of detail about what you’ve been up to the past 5-ish years. I might do a post on what’s actually in it, later, but it has a long introduction that’s like a literature review, and then you have several results chapters (which can basically be a paper if you have one published or in the works) and then conclusions and bigger picture perspective stuff. There’s also a methods section, and lists of figures, tables, and abbreviations. And there’s an acknowledgment section where I’ll include all of you – as well as my family, lab members, school, the library staff – and Google!

You also need to schedule your oral defense, which means, at least here, that you have to choose an external examiner (a professor from another institution) – I got an examiner I’m super super psyched about. I really admire her work and can’t wait to meet her. Once you’ve chosen, the poor school admin has to try to find a date that works for everyone. 

You turn your thesis in to your committee a few weeks before that date. And then on that date you give a ~1hr public presentation followed by a 1-2 hour closed-door questioning. And then you find out whether you passed. But often even if you pass the oral part they want you to make some corrections to your written thesis before they’ll give you the official certificate, so it might be several weeks before your truly PhDone. And then you might need to stick around even longer as a “post-graduate” to finish up any experiments that are needed to satisfy paper reviewers, etc. 

And that’s it! I think I included it all. And remember this totally depends on the program. And remember that there will be hurdles. There will be ups and downs. You can fail at those different checkpoints and redo/revise and pass. And even if you pass them all, there will be roadblocks, dead-ends, and weeks (even months) spent doing work that doesn’t seem to be of any use but actually developed you as a scientist. Each PhD journey is different. No PhD journey is easy. But, hey – at least you’ll feel like you really earn it!

more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0  ⠀  

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