I was thinking back on questions I’ve received over the years while I’ve been doing my Ph. D, and I thought I’d write a piece about the actual structure of a degree to obtain a Ph. D (by research). I feel like a lot of it is shrouded in mystery for my non-Uni friends, and I find myself like the comic below…
Obviously each degree is different, and different countries have different requirements of their students… so I’ll write from my own experiences and what it’s like at my Faculty.
Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology student residing in Australia.
The basic length of the Doctor of Philosophy by research degree I’m doing is three years… but no one (well- maybe some people) finishes in three years. Usually it’s around 4 years.
We spend the vast majority of those years doing experiments, so that we can generate data. The data can be turned into pretty figures and diagrams that can be showcased in the results chapters of our Ph. D thesis, which is what we need to write and submit in order to graduate. A Ph. D thesis has three separate result chapters, which generally correspond to three separate aims which try to address the broader question your thesis is trying to answer. Sometimes the three aims follow a nice, logical order, but sometimes they might deviate from each other (you might get some unexpected, but interesting, results)- it happens. You can’t really predict these things. The main thing is that it should still tell a story and flow nicely.
The first year is when you’re a ‘probationary’ or ‘pre-confirmed’ candidate. I found myself doing a brand new project (rather than a continuation of my Honours project), so I had to learn a lot of new things very quickly in the beginning. Near the end of the first twelve months of the degree, we have our Confirmation meeting. Our Faculty has recently introduced a six month progress review meeting, but before that, this was the first time you got to contact the people who would become your ‘committee members’.
The Ph. D committee is generally picked by you and your supervisor(s). They tend to be people who are experts in your field, who can bring good advice and guidance to the table. You just shoot prospective members an email, introduce yourself and your project, and just ask whether they want to be a part of your committee. Generally they say yes. Out of these members, you’ll have to appoint a Chair. They have to lead the meeting and fill out the relevant paperwork to update the University on your progress. Generally they’re the senior most member of your committee, that’s also from the same Department as you.
For us, during the Confirmation meeting (and all other subsequent progress review meetings), you’ll give a slideshow presentation which introduces (or re-introduces) your project, your aims, and the results obtained to date. Your committee may interrupt you at any time to ask questions, give constructive criticism, or make general comments, which means what was a 40 minute presentation can quickly become 90 minutes. It can be very mentally exhausting. Talking and being alert for that long is hard. I tend to bring snacks for the people in the room to nibble on.
At the end of the presentation, you (the candidate) will leave the room, and your supervisor(s) and committee members will chat amongst themselves about your progress. Sometimes they can waffle on about completely unrelated things (sometimes they use your meeting as an excuse to catch up), but generally they will go through how accomplished you are as a student. Are you motivated? Do you understand what you’re doing? Are you actively participating in your research and bringing ideas to the table yourself? Are you keeping up with current literature? Can you even lab? How are your oral and written communication skills?? All of these things get discussed without you.
After what can be an awkward loiter session outside of the meeting room, the Chair will invite you back into the room while your supervisor(s) leave. This is when they bring up any important points raised by the supervisor(s), and where you can bring up any issues in private. If your supervisor is a psychopath, this is the perfect time to bring it up. Any issues with the way you’re progressing can be discussed here (whether it be issues with you, the experiments, etc). The more you can communicate, the better you’ll stand when something goes wrong and you need to ask for extensions. Hopefully you have a decent enough committee that they are helpful.
You can fail a Confirmation meeting (or progress review meeting), hypothetically speaking, but you really need to actively be inhibiting progress. Usually if something isn’t quite up to scratch, they’ll just extend the probationary period or schedule another review meeting sooner (in a few months’ time, for instance). Unless you are actively avoiding work and not showing up to the Lab, you probably won’t fail.
After the Confirmation meeting, the minimum requirement is that you hold an annual progress review meeting. It’s less intense than Confirmation, but it’s a similar thing in that it’s more presentations on your progress and more paperwork to keep updating the University on your general progress. You can hold these meetings as often as you like, but generally it’s once every 12 months.
Throughout the years, the main aim is to become more and more independent. Initially it might seem like your supervisor(s) are coming up with ideas and directions for your experiments. That’s okay to begin with, but you do want to be getting less reliant on them for what you want to do with your project. They have the final say, but it’s up to you to decide what experiments may help you address your aims. Whether that means reading papers of interest and emailing or talking to your supervisor about how their work might apply to your own stuff… rather than your supervisor emailing you said papers and telling you about their relevance… or interpreting your data and telling your supervisor how it ties in with your overall research topic (essentially explaining a discussion section) and how you can do more experiments to add weight to pre-existing data… Over time, hopefully, you’ll feel more comfortable working and thinking about your research on your own. Eventually it feels like you’re simply informing your boss what you’ve been up to and what you’d like to do next. Rather than being told what to do.
Maybe you’ll work on some manuscripts to publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Maybe you’ll attend conferences (domestic and/or international) to present your work and represent your Lab. Either way, these things boost your chances of finding a job after your degree, by adding more credentials to your name or by allowing you to network in your field.
For our Faculty, at the end of three years, our scholarship and course is supposed to end… unless you apply for an extension. During the third year progress review meeting (held just prior to the end of three years), the committee Chair can grant that. But it’s only for six months. At 3.5 years, you need to hold another meeting and apply for another extension to your course… but your scholarship can’t be extended any further. Beyond 3.5 years, your lab has to pay for you. This is a problem if the lab can’t afford to pay for you. Either way, the course can be extended to four years… beyond that, the current rules are that your thesis becomes a ‘late submission’, and there will be some grilling by the University on why you’ve been unable to submit in a timely manner.
Something else to consider as we approach the endgame is to do our Oration/Ph. D completion seminar. This is a 40 ish minute presentation to the entire Department/Institute, showcasing your work since you started. You’ll be introduced by your Lab Head/supervisor(s) (generally in a somewhat endearing and comedic manner), and then launch straight into your presentation. This is a great chance to thank all the important people who have helped you on your journey, and, to be honest, the acknowledgements are what most people hang around for (it can be quite hilarious or very emotional… either way, worth it). At the end there will be a chance for questions from the audience, followed by food and drinks provided by the Department. You are expected to submit your thesis within six months of your Oration, so do schedule it with that in mind.
I might do a separate post about thesis writing and submission (as that’s a fairly chunky topic). Hopefully this post sheds some light into what people who do Ph. Ds are generally doing (at least in Australia).