At the time of writing this, I have finished “18th grade” and I still have quite a few years ahead of me before I am done with school. Typically, as an adult, when you tell someone that you are in school, they will ask two questions:
- What are you studying/what are you majoring in? (See my answer to this question here)
- When will you be done?
Tip: Do not ask a Ph.D. student in the U.S. when they will be done.
There is rarely a good answer to question #2. The people posing question #2 are always well-intentioned, but they are unfamiliar with the Ph.D.-earning process. This is to be expected–only about 2.0% of Americans go through this process.* Still, as a Ph.D. student myself, it is difficult to feel supported when my loved ones seem to have no clue what they are supporting.
If you have a friend or loved one who is working on a Ph.D. and you want to encourage and support them better, I highly recommend you continue reading and get to know what they are doing! (Also see this post on “how to support your loved one as they work on a Ph.D.“)
Every Ph.D. program is built from the same basic pieces and parts:
- Qualifying Exams
- Formal Research Proposal
The specific requirements within each of these basics significantly depend on a field’s priorities and culture. In this post, I will be describing the process of getting a Ph.D. from my personal perspective: in the United States, in a “hard” science field, with a focus on experimental research.
Every Ph.D. program also involves the following people:
- Major Professor (aka “advisor” or “principal investigator/PI”)
- Committee members (other professors that help your major professor periodically evaluate you)
This part is pretty straightforward. To get a Ph.D., you need to take some graduate level courses. However, coursework makes up a relatively small portion of the total program, especially compared to an undergraduate degree (or even some master’s) where the majority of the work is in the form of courses. For example, I only take 8 traditional courses in my program. Some programs require a few more, and certainly you are allowed to take more.
The courses in a Ph.D. program are typically designed to make sure you are decently familiar with the basics of your field and related, supporting fields. Still, many are not directly related to the very specific topic that you would say you are an “expert” in when you finish your Ph.D. Their highest value comes in teaching you how to learn new things and how to think scientifically.
Once you have met the basic course requirements, you take the biggest tests of your life: the qualifying exams.
The qualifying exams are casually called “quals” or “qualifiers” and consist of the written qual and the oral qual. The written qual is an exam written by your committee members, and the oral qual involves interviews with your committee members. Your committee uses quals to determine if you are ready for research in your field. You may notice… that is a pretty vague purpose.
In quals, your committee may ask you about material you learned in your courses, the work happening in your field, how you would design experiments to approach a research question, and more. Really, they can ask anything they want and each committee member might have a different idea of what is important to ask you about.
After your quals, your committee meets privately to decide if you passed. If you pass quals, you are one step closer to being a Ph.D. candidate.
FORMAL RESEARCH PROPOSAL
A Ph.D. student doesn’t get to just play around in the lab for a few years, write it up, and then graduate (though a lot of the work can look like play and can be fun with the right attitude). Before you begin the process of dissertation research, you need to propose your research plan to your committee in the form of a formal written proposal and presentation.
In my program the proposal is in the style of an NIH or NSF grant application, but this can vary. The proposal outlines the scientific questions your research seeks to address, the experiments you have planned to address these questions, and why these questions are important to ask in the first place. It also includes some logistical details, like what kind of equipment or resources you will need and a timeline for work.
Often, you will meet with the committee and give a presentation of your proposal where they can ask you questions about your plans. In some programs this is just considered part of quals, but not always. You can also sometimes do the proposal before quals if your committee thinks it is appropriate.
Once you finish your coursework, pass quals, and have your proposal approved, you are promoted from a Ph.D. student to a Ph.D. candidate.
The culmination of a Ph.D., and the absolute most important thing in a science program, is the dissertation. The dissertation is a (long) written work addressing the questions you asked about in your proposal. The actual experiments reported in your dissertation may or may not end up being the same as your proposed (since many, many, many experiments fail… and some just lead you down a different path than expected).
A lot of experimental research goes into a science dissertation. I expect to be working exclusively on my dissertation for at least two years, and I will have been working on projects that will go into my dissertation for three years before that. This is not just a lab report. Writing up the dissertation itself is a labor of love and does take a good amount of time, but the majority of the work happens in the lab long before the pen hits paper (or… the fingers hit keys?).
When the dissertation work is complete and written up, you will defend it in your, well, defense (sometimes called a “viva voce”). Your defense begins with your presentation of your work in the form of a public talk. Anyone who want to can come to this portion of the defense. Then, after the general audience has had opportunity to ask questions, they are excused and the committee further interviews you. This can take a while. I remember waiting about three hours for my friend to come out of his defense after the talk was over.
Like quals and the proposal, the committee meets in private and decides if you have passed your defense. If you pass, the only thing left between you and that Ph.D. is waiting for the graduation ceremony.
ONE LAST THING: FUNDING
The only (reasonable) way that anyone can devote this much time to getting a Ph.D. is to acquire funding. Your source of funding can change throughout your degree and will dictate quite a lot about your experience. In science fields, these are the options:
- Teaching Assistantships: Your department hires you to help them teach undergraduate courses. Lots of the time, you facilitate and supervise science lab classes. You might also grade papers for a lecture course. All kinds of TA’s usually have office hours for their students.
PROS: Teaching experience! You get to say you teach at the college level, which is pretty cool.
CONS: TA’s are often not taken seriously by their students. Hours are not too flexible.
- Research Assistantships: Your PI hires you, using grant money, to help them do research. Often this work overlaps with your dissertation work, but not always. Just depends.
PROS: Even more research experience (and publications). Potential overlap with your own work is helpful.
CONS: Need to balance general lab work with your own dissertation research. Some PI’s can expect way too much, but it depends on the PI’s style.
- External Fellowships: An organization or government agency sponsors your Ph.D. work.
PROS: You get paid to do the work you needed to do anyway. This is the perfect scenario.
CONS: There are no cons. Getting these can be competitive, and you may need to write progress reports, but… perfect scenario.
So, back to the original question: When will you be done?
I will be done when I…
- Finish my coursework (my last formal course is this Fall),
- get my proposal approved (I’m currently writing that up),
- pass my quals (tentatively scheduled for November/December this year),
- and finish my dissertation work (??????? / It will take however long it takes).
I hope you now have a better idea of how a Ph.D. program works that will help you to encourage and support the Ph.D.-pursuers in your life.
If you are considering pursuing a Ph.D. yourself, I’d love to chat with you about it! Follow my Instagram account @julia.posts.about.proteins and send me a direct message there to get the conversation going!
*OECD Education at a Glance 2019 Report (https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/education-at-a-glance-2019_f8d7880d-en)