Is there a Doctor in the House?

I’m over a month into my PhD program and I’m still oscillating between wild, ecstatic optimism and stone cold, stop you in your tracks fear of the route ahead.  Completing a Master’s degree was two and a half years of hard work and setbacks culminating in one of the proudest, happiest moments of my life – successful defending of my thesis. I’m back on track for five more years of the grad student life, but these will be harder, faster, stronger times ahead than before. Good thing I’ve got my Daft Punk pandora station ready to go. My Masters program didn’t entail any qualifying or comprehensive exams so they seem like lofty, impassable goals now. A sentiment shared by my cohort members, but we’ve found that the more information we have the more confidence we gain. We here at STS would like to share what we know about our own roads to knowledge with you the readers so that you guys can find the confidence to face this journey too.

Not freaking out. I am not freaking out. I’m not. 

First things first, what exactly is the difference between quals, comps, and a thesis defense? Well, if you’re in grad school you at least know enough to be shaking in your boots at the prospect of any one of them. As you progress through your PhD program the powers that be (general your advisors) will want to ensure that you’re advancing at the desired pace, thus a few intense, intimidating milestones are thrown at you. The first of these, the Qualifying exam, serves to assess whether the student is capable of conducting doctoral research/scholarship. Quals often also serves as the PhD candidacy examination. Qualification exams are taken early in your program and are often based on required coursework. Once you pass your quals (and sometimes it takes a few tries, don’t worry!) feel free to relax a tiny bit and allow yourself to celebrate! Throw a wild soiree with your cohort! The PhD Comprehensive exam is given by members of your committee once a student has completed the required coursework (generally year 2 or 3, but ultimately depends on your program) and serves to evaluate mastery of the major studied. Sometimes presenting your research proposal can be wrapped up within Comps, as a way so show you have mastered the content necessary to proceed. If you’ve passed your Comps go ahead and celebrate once more! Now all you have left is research, thesis writing, and a thesis defense! It’ll be tough, but you’re in the home stretch. A lot of students are terrified by the time they are fast approaching their thesis defense. A lot rides on that final presentation of research and oral examination by the committee, but honestly once your committee signs off on a date for you to present and defend you’re practically finished already! They don’t want to set you up to fail (it reflects poorly on them as well)! Smooth sailings on through to your doctorate! Congrats once more! You’re a doctor!!

Post Masters Celebrations!

If you picked up on how it sounds like your committee has a lot of power of your progress through your PhD project, then you’re not far from the truth! However, they will also be there to provide you with all of the guidance and insights that you could possibly need. After all, they’ve been in your shoes before and have helped others through your journey. The majority of your committee will be comprised of professors from your department, but if you’re one of those brave souls that goes for a more interdisciplinary approach you’ll likely find members from other departments or even other institutions.  You are in charge of approaching and inviting generally four professors to serve on your committee. Something to keep in mind while forming your own band of professors is that you’ll want to ensure that you choose members that will have the time and resources to help you with your thesis research, writing, and defending. You’ll need to have a close working relationship with these people so don’t be afraid to choose based on how well you foresee getting along with them. A highfalutin big wig in your field sounds great to have involved, but if they have no time for you then maybe it’s best to find someone else to serve instead. You want people who are passionate about being on your team and helping your grow and develop to ensure that upon completion of your PhD you’ll be ready to find a postdoc or a job in a variety of fields!

Workin’ hard with the cohort.

 If you are, like me, at the very beginning of your program with all of these hurdles strewn in your future it can be incredibly intimidating. A lot of doubts can creep into your mind about your ability to gain a mastery of the content, especially if you’ve changed fields! I’ve had quite a few chats with my cohort already about our looming quals at the end of this year. Our department recently changed it’s program for PhD students and we’re the first group to go through this new design! We feel a lot like guinea pigs – the kind that people eat rather than keep for pets! I have dealt with this nervousness by finding out as MUCH as I can about how I am expected to progress through each year. But what has really quelled my quals fears has been talking to my academic advisor and hearing his reassurance that no, the department really isn’t trying to scare anyone off or try and weed us out. They earnestly do want each and every one of us to pass and will provide us with all the resources to do so! Rather, instead of being a weed out process, the qualification exam more serves as a way to ensure that WE are absolutely sure that we want to put in the work necessary to earn a PhD. I’m so grateful that I am part of a large, wonderfully supportive cohort that is already working hard to make sure no one falls behind. If I can recommend just one thing to new graduate students feeling that fear creep in, it’s to talk to your cohort, the grad students that are ahead of you, and professor in your department. The reassurance I’ve gotten from admitting my fears and insecurities to others and in turn hearing theirs has been a tremendous confidence booster!

You can check out my (Meridith’s) Statistics PhD program expectations in the slide included! If you are interested in hearing about Rachel’s Ecology program (she’s in her 3rd year and has just schedule her comps!) you’ll want to keep an eye on our Sweet Tea, Science Tumblr this week! If you are also working on getting your PhD (or Masters!) we’d love to hear how these major exams work in your field/department! There’s so much variety that we can’t hope to cover how these things work for everyone, but go ahead and let your experiences be known down in the comments.



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