January 2012

Surviving a bioscience Ph.D.

Part 2: Mitigating the hurdles and pitfalls
faced by doctoral students

You spent four-plus years becoming inspired by the biosciences. You were told that you were among the best and the brightest and were encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. You were fortunate enough to choose from among your favorite doctoral programs. Yet now you’re struggling: juggling coursework, pondering rotation research, preparing for the qualifying exam and the thesis proposal, making steady thesis research progress, and figuring out how to finish and defend on time. At the heart of your struggles are nagging internal questions: Do I really belong here? Do I have what it takes to get through this? Do I want to do this?

Most graduate students in the biosciences (and elsewhere) must struggle with these issues while pursuing a Ph.D. I’m not talking about fixing failed experiments, struggling with techniques or having a publication get scooped, which are all difficult aspects of bioscience research. Instead, I’m talking about figuring out what a Ph.D. means to you, finding out the hard way what it takes to get one and developing a career plan to leverage your degree (1).



Qualifying as a doctoral candidate
After getting into a bioscience Ph.D. program, the next hurdle between you and defending your thesis is “qualifying” as a doctoral candidate. This includes passing your coursework, doing research rotations, choosing a thesis lab or mentor, passing a preliminary exam and proposing your thesis research project. Keeping in mind that the time to degree has become increasingly lengthy in the biosciences (six or seven years is not unusual), a student’s choices leading up to Ph.D. qualification can dramatically accelerate or delay the period between matriculation and commencement.

The quality of graduate courses varies widely in part because of your dependence on faculty members whose primary job descriptions and reward systems do not require high-quality teaching. One of the best approaches for students is to form small (three- to four-person) study groups that meet regularly (two to three times a week) to go over the material in detail and teach each other. However, students should keep in mind that coursework is not the main point of graduate school; the most important material any student will learn comes from direct application to her or his research project. Do not take extra courses based solely on interest. Do learn and apply new techniques that help answer interesting research questions.

Getting the most out of research rotations and ultimately choosing the right thesis or lab mentor, thesis research project and thesis committee are all topics that could fill separate articles. The main points include the following: 1) Keep research rotations short (six to eight weeks) but sufficiently long to make an informed decision. The sooner you get rolling on your thesis project, the sooner you’ll graduate. 2) Be aware of both your hands-on and hands-off mentoring needs. Hands-on mentoring involves detailed instruction and oversight, whereas hands-off mentoring consists of top-level project administration only. Some mentors are capable of balancing both as the situation demands. 3) Find a lab that is doing interesting research, but, more importantly, make sure it is a good fit for you scientifically and personally. It’s incredibly important not to feel isolated or in conflict during your thesis research. 4) Choose research rotations carefully to give yourself an opportunity you might not have initially expected, but never rotate into a lab that you wouldn’t consider joining. 5) You’ll probably start on an existing project, but sticking with it for three to five years of thesis research will require that you take ownership and develop your own driving questions and research methods.

The qualifying exam and thesis proposal occur at a time when many graduate students falter. It’s a difficult process that requires lots of hard work and creative thinking to identify important questions and the best approach(es) to answer them. Use the time-management strategies discussed below. Ask for help as necessary (or allowed), but first spend time trying to answer questions and understand key concepts by yourself.

Conducting, finishing and defending your thesis research
To help take ownership of your thesis project, develop your own interests within your discipline and within your thesis lab. Stay in frequent, open communication with your adviser to keep your project on track. If possible, never go more than a week without discussing your science with him or her, including your weekly research goals and accomplishments.


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This article makes many great points many of which, I wish I had read while I was in graduate school. In particular it is critical to realize whether you are a person that requires a hands-on guided adviser, or one that prefers and works well with full independence.



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