What’s it like getting a science PhD?

By AdmOxalate (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by AdmOxalate (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. This is where I went to grad school.

In my last post, I talked about how to get into graduate school.  This post will be about how PhD programs in the sciences are structured and how they work, because I’ve realized from lots of conversations with my non-scientist friends and family – no one really knows much about this!

There are fundamental differences between getting a PhD in the sciences and getting one in anything else. The first main difference is that you don’t have to pay for a PhD in the sciences, and in fact, they pay you.  Don’t get excited – they don’t pay much. The current NIH stipend rate is $22,920 per year (only about $2900 more in 2015 than what I received in 2001).  Tuition and this stipend are paid for in different ways depending on the school.  Some schools have endowments that support graduation positions. For example, I was supported by an institutional endowment made by the Beckman Foundation for my first two years of graduate school. Some schools rely on the students working as Teaching Assistants (TAs) helping to teach undergraduate courses to support some or all of their tuition or stipend.  In many cases, the research laboratory that the student works in pays for the tuition and stipend using their grants. Graduate students themselves also can apply for funding, which along with helping fund their position, is a prestigious resume entry.  I applied for and was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship that supported my last few years of graduate school.

The second main difference between a science and non-science PhD is that there is NO WAY that you can work and get your PhD at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, you work. You work your butt off every day all day, but not while making money at another job. With the nature of scientific research, there isn’t time to have another job, and in most cases, it isn’t allowed by the institution anyway.

What is a graduate student so busy doing?  The graduate program at the WSBS, where I went to school, was designed to be very different from the traditional American graduate school model.  I’ll start by describing, generally (since all grad schools are different) traditional programs and then describe my program. Most PhD programs are expected to last between 4-7 years. The first two years are filled with a few key activities:

  • First two years: Traditional classes at the graduate level that cover scientific topics more deeply than an undergraduate program
  • First year: Rotations. These are short (usually 3 month) stints in a laboratory to figure out if you like what the research that lab is doing and whether or not you’d want to do your PhD thesis research there. This is also the chance for the head of that lab (also called the Principal Investigator or PI) to figure out if they want to have you in the lab for the next 4-6 years.
  • End of second year: Qualifying Exam. This exam, also called the comprehensive exam at some schools, is an enormous exam that is like the trigger for the institution to determine if you go forward in the PhD program or not. Usually held at the end of the second year, if you pass, you move on to nearly exclusively doing research in the lab to complete your thesis.  If not… well, I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t pass after at least a few tries.
  • Third year until you graduate: After the first few years, most of the time is spent in the lab. There may be required Teaching Assistant responsibilities or other required seminar classes (like Journal Club), but this varies by school. Then there are the thesis committee meetings.  Pretty early on in each student’s research project, a committee of 3-5 faculty at the university are invited to participate on your thesis committee.  Their job is to provide a set of eyes (other than the PI of your lab) to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. They approve the thesis proposal and meet with you regularly (in a traditional program, this might be yearly) to keep you on track. They are also the committee that reads and evaluates your thesis dissertation and holds your defense (more on that shortly).

As I mentioned, this traditional system is a bit different from what I went through at CSHL.  The philosophy of WSBS is to shorten the time frame from matriculation to graduation to 4 years while also maintaining academic excellence.

  • First semester (4 months): This is the only time I took core courses – what my mom called “Science Boot Camp”.  These classes were unique because instead of learning facts out of textbooks we learned how to critically think about, write about, and present science. The classes focused on reading journal articles, scientific exposition and ethics, and particular scientific topics in depth like neuroscience and cancer.
  • Second semester (4 months): After the first semester, we had three one month rotations that allowed us to explore our scientific interests to help decide on a thesis laboratory or just allow us to try something new. I did rotations in a lab that used computers to understand lots of scientific data, a lab that used microscopy to figure out how a cell worked, and a lab that studied apoptosis (where I ended up doing my thesis research). Also during this time, we did our one required teaching experience at the DNA Learning Center. Here we taught middle and high school students about biology and DNA.  The idea was that if we could explain science to kids, we could explain it to anyone.
  • End of year one:  After the first year, we took the Qualifying Exam.  For my QE, I had two topics assigned to me (Cancer and Cell-Cell Communication) and I had to learn everything about these two topics in one month. A panel then grilled me for nearly 2 hours on these topics, and fortunately, I passed.
  • Years 2-4: The classes are only held in the first semester and the rotations only held in the second semester so that we could focus on what we were doing at all times. No excuses. So after the qualifying exam we were expected to focus on all research all the time. The one exception being the Topics in Biology courses held each year.  The Topics in Biology courses were held for an entire week (7am-11pm) and gave you the chance to interact with experts in various fields both to extend your scientific knowledge and to critically think about new problems.
Photo Nov 15, 9 24 23 PM

My thesis. It’s about 1.5 inches thick. Or as my hubby said “That’s your thesis? Impressive, baby”

Doing research was intense lab work punctuated by intense meetings.  FYI – intense lab works mean 8am-7pm (or later) Monday through Friday and usually the weekend too (and by weekend, I do mean both Saturday and Sunday).  And let’s not forget the 4am time points when you have to go into the lab just to check on your experiments every 4-6 hours for 24 hours straight. But back to the intense meetings…The first intense meeting was the thesis proposal defense, which was held in the second year. This was where you told a committee of 4-5 researchers what you were going to research for the rest of grad school, they quizzed you for 1-2 hours and then gave you the go ahead (or not) to do that work. The next set of intense meeting were the thesis committee meetings every 6 months to keep each student was on track. Again, 1-2 hours of presenting and critical evaluation of your work by committee.  At some point, the committee gives you the “green light” to start writing your thesis, you take all of the work from the past 3-4 years and put it in a massive document called a dissertation. The thesis committee reads it, you present the work in front of them and all of your family and friends, and then again, you spend 2 hours in a room with your committee answering every question they can think of – aka “defending” your thesis.

Cathy_graduation

My PhD graduation day with two of my classmates. I’m in the center

As I write this, I realize that my thesis defense was 9 years ago next week. How time flies. After the defense, you have your PhD and officially graduate whenever the ceremony is held – in my case in May of 2007. I graduated 5 years after I started – just slightly longer than the expected 4 years for the Watson School. Was it easy? Nope, not even a little bit (ask my mom). Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

This post is dedicated to my classmates and my friends in graduate school – you know who you are.  Without you, I wouldn’t have made it. And to my mom, who convinced me at least twice, not to quit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *