Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Through experience, I have determined that after your fourth year, people ask you when you are planning on graduating AT LEAST once a day, but, if you are in this boat, don't be surprised if it is daily. I think people ask so much, because they have really no idea what goes into getting a PhD, and what exactly a dissertation is. A friend of mine had a mother who kept asking her: "how is your paper going?" like it was a book report! At this same friend's graduation, they pronounced her name incorrectly. I said aloud "6 years in this place and she can't get them to say her name right!" To which the woman next to me said "well, that's including undergrad." Um excuse me miss-my-daughter-is-in-PA-school.... I've been in (post high school) since 2001!!! BLAH!!!!

I am going to take this post to answer some PhD FAQ's, based on comments I have heard in my own experience, followed by who I heard them from in (quotes):

Keep in mind, I am getting my PhD in the Biomedical Sciences - so I am sure it differs through disciplines

1) When do you graduate (everyone):
The average length to complete a PhD in the US in 7.5 years. I have heard it said that the average length to complete a PhD in my program is 5.5 years. I am planning on 5 years exactly.

2). What do you mean you don't know when you will be finished? (early talk with the now husband):
Many components go into securing a PhD- but the overall point is to become a master of your field. The PhD is the highest degree an individual can earn in most-english speaking countries. Your committee (a group of professors who oversee your academic and research development) meet with you periodically to assess your progress and test your knowledge and writing skills. When they decide you are done you are done.

3). What does a program consist of (new students):
My program is a pretty basic biomedical program. There are a few steps.
- 2 years of general coursework where we must learn everything there is to know to be able to reflect the name of our degree.
- A written comprehensive exam - where we must demonstrate the mastery of our knowledge of each and every piece of information we gleaned from our general coursework. Only passing students are allowed to continue on.
- A thesis proposal - you establish your committee (5 members usually) and meet with them to discuss the plan you have established to graduate. This plan is about 12 pages and lists the scientific aims you will complete while you are there to earn your degree. During this time, each member will take turn asking you questions about your written proposal to find the whole in your knowledge. You can either PASS or FAIL. If you pass- you go on to become a ....
- PhD CANDIDATE!!!! - this means you have been deemed worthy to receive a PhD, and you need to go ahead and start doing all of the work you just told everyone you would do to graduate. This stage is referred to as "ABD" all but dissertation.
- Write your dissertation - it's long, and it's your entire graduate career in written form
- Defend your dissertation - you've performed the experiments, written the dissertation, now you have to defend it publicly in front of your dept, visiting students, and friends and family. Immediately following you PRIVATELY defend to your committee only, making sure you deserve to graduate.
That my friends, is what you have to do.

3) Doctor of Philosophy? Why the hell would someone want to study philosophy? (My brother in law):
Doctor of Philosophy what PhD stands for. This goes back a LONG time, to European Universities in the middle ages. These dudes considered science, math, and art, philosophies. Basically anything besides theology, law and medicine. So no, I do not study Nietzsche.

4) Don't you mean your sister studies Pharmacy? (friend of my bro's):
No, I don't study pharmacy, pharmacists make way more than PhD's for one. I don't administer drugs, or work in a drug store. Pharmacy school consists of two years of undergraduate study, and 4 years of pharmacy school. It is what is known as a professional degree. Pharmacology involves the study of drug and drug actions. We do the testing, pharmacists do the prescribing.

5) So-and-so is getting her doctorate too. She's getting her DPT! (old coworker):
DPT (Doctor of physical therapy) is another professional degree. 4 years undergrad, 3 years graduate. These degrees are not bad degrees, they will make good money also. But a professional degree is not as high as a PhD.

6) Why didn't you go to school to become a real doctor (husband's extended family):
Many people consider MD's the only "real doctor" there is. Is it because they write prescriptions? (PA's and some RN's and Pharmacists can do this), or because they see patients? (MA's in many disciplines see patients, as do clinical PhD's). Or is because they make a buttload? Who knows? But med school is a lot different from graduate school. For one - they don't get paid! I also love to sleep, and wanted a flexible schedule to raise a family and enjoy life. I've never wanted to be on call, or work 40 hours straight - no matter how much money I make. But, regardless I will be a doctor - so all of these people will have to address me as such each time they say my name.... as will my husband, parents and imaginary children.

7) Who pays you? (guy sitting behind me):
You do! Seriously, the government gives grants for good ideas scientists propose to them. Good ideas = money = graduate students. Sometimes individual professors pay students out of their grants, or universities pay students out of institutional grants. Someone told me once that the school uses money directly from the whopping tuition paid by the medical students, but I don't know this for sure.

8) What is your schedule? (friends, all the time):
Technically, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But basically, we work until we are done. Unfortunately science can cause you to never be done, and so it becomes up to you to strike a balance between a semblance of a life and work. There are no official holidays or maternity leave. But we have a lot of flexibility in our field. If you are producing - you are good. if you are not - you are not good. Some weeks I work 20 hours, some I work 80.

9) Are you going to move when you are done? (I get this one from everyone):
The key is flexibility. Jobs are hard to come by - and you need to be willing to move. Yes, I have a preference of where i would like to end up, but there are no guarantees. I need to think of my career and go where the job is. So the answer is YES - I will be moving.

10) What do you do when you are done?
You have many choices. But the filed has changed in the past 20 or so years, and most everyone secures a position called a post-doc. This is a 2-3 year position where you learn how to be a real, grown-up researcher. If you want to stay in academia, they are almost required. If you want to go into industry (pharmaceuticals) or government, you can generally get a job right out of grad school. For teaching, it is sometimes possible to secure a position, but it is advisable to seek a post-doc.

11) So... when are you done?
Next August, 2011. We'll see what happens, but mark my words, I will be done. And there will be a party and everyone is invited.

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