Okay, so I graduated from my graduate program. I almost officially have a PhD. There are a couple of formalities left to observe, but in practical terms, I did it.
I haven’t done the best job over these years of documenting my journey for anyone who’s interested in knowing how a PhD program in the sciences works, especially for subjects like molecular biology, genetics, etc. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to give an overview of how this kind of journey happens, in the United States in particular.
Classes and rotations. Yay, you got accepted. For the first year or two, you’ll have classes to try to get you to a general background on your topic. You’ll also be doing rotations the first year–meaning that you’ll work for a shorter period of time in a few labs on a few small projects (maybe a semester per lab). After that, you’ll make the decision to commit to one lab for however many years it takes to graduate.
Get a lab. Once rotations are over, you and the professor whose lab you want to join will have a conversation about whether they can (and want to) take you. If they have the funding to take a student and want you in their lab, then you have a place to work for the rest of your graduate career.
Hopefully. If nothing goes wrong. But that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.
Qualifying exam(s). During your early graduate career–maybe around the end of the second year?–you’ll have to pass a qualifying exam set by your department. Sometimes this is just one exam. For me, it was two exams set about six months apart. In the first part, we presented an experimental proposal. In the second, we reported on our experimental progress since the proposal. This is done via presentations in front of a small committee of professors.
Work in lab for x number of years. Once you’ve passed your qualifying exam(s), you spend an unknown number of years working in your lab. You probably have a committee of professors you report to every year or so. Your advisor, possibly with the input of this committee, will decide when it’s time for you to graduate.
Every individual experience is different here, even more so than any other aspect of graduate school. You might work on one project, or you might work on multiple projects. It’s not unusual to have to change projects or work on several at once. It’s not unusual for one project to turn out different from what you thought it was when you first started–that’s just how science goes. You might get positive results, which tell you something is happening. You might get negative results, which tell you that something is not happening. Negative results are normal and important, but unfortunately more difficult to publish.
Speaking of publishing, you might have results that you can put in a publication, which is nice. But you also might not, especially if your results are negative, and that’s normal too.
One of the stressful things about this is that you can’t really compare yourself and your project(s) to anyone else, which makes it hard to know if you’re doing fine or not.
Writing your thesis. And at some subjective point, you’ll have done enough work to graduate. Then you’ll start writing your thesis. This thesis will consist of background information, your own experiments, your assessment of those experiments, and how you accomplished them. It’ll be probably over 100 pages, double spaced, so it might take you a decent amount of work to write.
Once the written thesis is complete, you distribute it to a committee of professors. These professors will be your thesis committee and decide whether you graduate at your thesis defense.
Defending your thesis. For the thesis defense, I gave a public, approximately hour-long presentation on my graduate work. After that came the private defense, where only my thesis committee, my advisor, and myself remained in a room where they could ask me questions until they were satisfied.
After they finish, they ask you to leave the room while they deliberate. Once they call you back, you find out their decision and what else they’d like you to do to graduate. They will almost certainly ask you for written revisions to your thesis. It’s also possible they might ask for additional experiments. From what I hear, it’s very rare to fail at this stage–usually, if your advisor or advisory committee think you won’t graduate, you won’t even get to this point.
This is often considered the most daunting part of getting a PhD–and I certainly freaked out leading up to it–but I personally found my second qualifying exam more challenging and stressful than my defense. Again, there’ll be plenty of individual variation in all of these examinations in terms of your project, what your committee asks you, and how well you show that you know what they expect you to know.
But once you get to the point of defending your thesis, no one else knows your topic and what you’ve done better than you. That’s because these projects are so specialized.
Revisions and graduation. After you pass your thesis defense, it’s mostly over, but you still have to do the revisions that your committee proposes. Then submit the updated dissertation.
This is the stage where I am. I’ve passed my thesis defense. And I’m in the process of revising my thesis for submission.
Other comments. By the way, all these examinations in front of a committee of professors? Pretty stressful. All of these people have different expertise and disciplines, and they can ask literally anything. It’s practically a guarantee that you’ll get asked questions you don’t know the answer to. That’s normal.
In a way, these examinations are half oral exams, half professional presentations. You’ll get asked questions to test your knowledge and understanding. (And different professors may have different opinions on what you should be expected to know.) But you’ll also get plenty of professional curiosity questions, where professors may be interested in how a topic relates to their own specialties or how it works in general.
For anyone wondering where the graduate student protagonist in my own fiction series, Terrestrial Magic, fits on this timeline–she’s over in the ‘lab work for x number of years’ section. Keep in mind, of course, that she’s living in a post-apocalyptic world, so the priorities of her society don’t always match up to our currently non-apocalyptic reality.
And that’s a very general overview of the process of getting a science PhD in the United States, or at least my experience of it. Now that I’ve, you know, actually finally completed it.