Graduate School FAQS PT. 2

A guest series by WIT Faculty: Aaron Carpenter

In a previous post, we discussed the basics of graduate school, focusing mostly on Master’s degrees.  If you have not seen that post, you can find it here.  In this post, we will instead focus on PhD programs, with some touches of other degrees.

phd comic

General PhD FAQs:

  • What is the structure of a PhD program? What are the basics?
    • A PhD is definitely a large undertaking than a master’s and needs to be considered carefully. A PhD can take 4-7 years full-time beyond the Master’s, possibly more depending on the topic and the advisor, or if you choose part-time.  Because of the difficulty and the time commitment, you need a good reason to go into a PhD program.  The main reasons to pursue a PhD are because you want to go into academia, say as a college professor, or if you want to get into really cutting-edge research either at a university or at a large research lab.  Both of these positions typically require a PhD.  If the reasons you are thinking of a PhD are more like, “I want to be called Dr.” or “I don’t have a job, so I am thinking of grad school,” or “My family wants me to,” those are reasons that often result in burn-out.  PhD is a long, difficult road, so it is important to have that pure motivation to help you through the harder days. Having that light at the end of the tunnel is key.
    • You will build a network of fellow graduate students, typically your lab, that will become friends and “academic family” for life. The head of this family will be your advisor – the relationship you have with this individual, unlike an “academic advisor” in undergrad, will greatly determine your level of personal happiness, time to completing the degree, and job prospects upon graduation.
  • What role does a PhD advisor have?
    • Your advisor will help determine your specialty, your projects, and your day to day activities. You will choose your advisor, and he or she will also choose you, often helping to pay you something through stipend.  When you apply to PhD programs, you want to research potential advisors. Everyone has different experiences with their advisors, but the key is to have a strong working relationship.  You will spend a lot of time with them and they will determine your project and your classes, so you need to be able to work with them.
    • The advisor is also the source of funding. If accepted to a PhD program, you will want to be fully funded. This means tuition and fees fully paid for, as well as insurance and a small living stipend. By small, we mean enough to share an apartment, feed yourself, and very little else.
  • Would I be taking classes within the PhD?
    • You will take some classes, but mainly in support of your PhD research, which is chosen by you and your advisor. You may audit, or just sit in some classes, or actually take them for full credit.  But, after any mandatory coursework, expect that you will spend 60-80 hours a week doing research in a lab of some sort.  Most of your research time, you are learning how to do literature searches, conceptual and practical research, how to think critically and deeply about data, question assumptions, and basically learn how to be an independent researcher.  You will also do presentations, write papers for journals and conferences, disseminate your research to the community. All of these will hopefully lead to your dissertation and defense.
  • What is the dissertation like?
    • The main component of PhD activities revolves around doing original research and publishing it. The dissertation is a basically a medium sized text-book on your field and your specific topic. I have seen theses at 200 pages or some over 400.  You will then defend your thesis in public, but mainly to a committee of faculty of 3-6 people.  Your advisor should help to prepare you the whole time, so when you get into the defense, you are prepared.  In that defense, you are proving that you are the foremost expert on that topic, regardless of how esoteric the topic might be.
    • In many programs, the PhD is a superset of the requirements for a Masters in that program. This means that after completing mandatory coursework, and possibly modest additional requirements, you will receive a Master’s degree on the road to a PhD (typically after the first 2 years). If during your (long and hard) pursuit of your PhD you realize that you don’t want to pursue research in your career, this path allows for a reasonable departure. Consider this when choosing the type of program to which to apply: you’ll probably pay for a Master’s, but not for a PhD. However, do NOT apply to PhD programs if you have no intention of continuing past the Master’s – this is an ethical gray area, and can easily lead to burned bridges (such as lose you a recommendation letter for employment after receiving your graduate degree!)
    • In the end, getting a PhD means having a passion for a particular topic, a reason to gut through the hardships and time, and the grit to continue. My PhD was trying, but I don’t regret it as it has led me to where I am now.  You need to love the research or aim at a job that needs the PhD, otherwise it is tough to make it through.
  • Other than Master’s or PhD, what other degree options after a Bachelor’s are there?
    • Other degrees are out there: MBA, law, medical. I can’t necessarily speak to all of these here, but other podcasts/seminars will discuss how to go into these different fields.  There are also plenty of resources on campus, including the co-op and career center and instructors/professors.
    • It is easier to transition than you might think to pursue graduate education in a field different than your undergrad. Essentially, you might need to take some bridge courses to give you a new foundation, but that should only add 1-2 semesters, and depending on your background, should be fairly straightforward.

For more questions regarding the application process, please check back later in the semester for Part Three!

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