27 and a PhD

Home » Posts tagged 'thesis committee'

Tag Archives: thesis committee

Tackling two questions – Search Terms – short answers

Since I get a good deal of interesting search terms when I check my blog stats, I’ve started seeing them as inquiries. I’ve also decided to start answering some of these in short form, instead of having a long, long post. Also, I’m going to try to answer some of these questions, inquiries, etc more often (my usual answering speed is about a week to 2 weeks in length). So today, I’m going to tackle two inquiries A) what to wear to your PhD defense and B) Can you be my your PhD thesis defense?

A) What to wear. From experience, wear something nice, but comfy. Chances are you’ll be standing for a long, long time, so better be safe than sorry. I decided to wear a dress (which was so very unusual for me). My defense was in the summer, so wearing a dress was a nice option. I wore 2-inch heeled sandals, which by the end of the day were killing my feet. Since more than likely you’ll have loved ones there (or really good friends), maybe you could get some flats and have them hold ’em for after the defense, or just plain and simple wear them to begin with (if you’re a girl). You don’t have to wear an evening gown, but something nice, comfortable and serious will help you look and feel the part. If you’re a guy, wear IRONED clothes, or if you don’t have time to go to the dry-cleaners, please go get something that doesn’t need ironing (I know with all the stress it is one more thing to take into account, but it’s one of the most important days of your life and you want to look and feel like a winner). Wear a tie if you’re so inclined (but not required) and wear comfy shoes. If you’re a girl, try to keep it simple, sober and elegant (not prom-ish, not too much bling or things that like straight out of jersey shore). Wear something that will make you feel comfy yet professional. Get a haircut or a trim and look clean and presentable, a little make up would enhance your look too. Trust me, it will help you feel better in your skin while getting drilled by thesis committee. After (or before if you have time, sanity and money) go get a little pampered, like a massage or facial.

B) Can you be in my PhD thesis defense? Well, I don’t know the intention behind this question. If it’s about whether I (Dr. 28 and a PhD) be in your thesis committee the (sad) answer is that no, I can’t be. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’m not a PI and as far as I know postdocs aren’t allowed in thesis committees. I can however help if I’m in your geographical area, so leave a message or send an email to stitchick at gmail dot com (change the at for @ and dot for . as I don’t want to encourage spammers). But on to the real answer. I think what the reader is asking is how can you ask a PI or prof to be in your committee. Simple, send and email or visit the lab. Usually 3-5 members are needed per thesis committee and there might be rules as to the affiliations of those PI’s (say, 75-to 90% of the have to be from your department while the rest can be from outside, or they might have specific roles within the department or program and you need to have a certain number of them there). PI’s are very busy people, they serve in many committees, are almost always mentoring others, etc, but if asked nicely and politely you’ll more than likely get a positive answer. Get input from your PI or labmates on who they prefer to have and why. In my case I almost copied a previous grad student’s committee when it was my time to assemble my thesis committee, as I knew they were familiar with the topic and were excited about it (I kind of wanted to keep some continuity). So be polite, be ready to get some no’s or maybe’s and remember to be thankful and acknowledge their help when they accept (and if the don’t be courteous too). This reminds me, I still want to mail some thank yous for my thesis committee and their help and input through the years.

I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

A big stepping stone while doing your PhD is the time when you change your status from being simply known as a grad student, to becoming a PhD trainee (or senior graduate student). To achieve that glorious state means that you have successfully gone through the qualifying exam(s) period, and essentially, your last examination will be your thesis defense. Quals, or comps (comprehensive exams) were the big thing. And I mean BIG … you hear stories about X or Y department, that have the worst reputation, or Prof. W, who’s an ass and could be in your examination committee, and finally those people, those students who nobody knows why, but they failed, were kicked out and never heard of again.

Well …. I’m sort of one of those. And not at the same time. I failed my qualifying exam, as the title clearly states. I had a second chance to take it, and passed it with flying colours, but it was not easy …. thus, here I share my story, and some of the things I learned from that process.

Some aspects of quals remain similar across different higher ed institutions. I’ve heard of people who need to read X amount of articles or books, then write long essays to answer questions on the topics they read. My guess is that this would be a more traditional approach to taking the quals. In my case the department in which I did the PhD did things differently. You had to find a topic, similar (but not identical) to something that was being done by your group, then write and defend a proposal in front of a committee. To me it was similar to presenting your thesis proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your exam committee and being helped by the boss was discouraged (but not totally frowned upon).

People, I tell you …. it was HARD. Now, one problem in my field (biochemistry and biophysics) is that not all the research starts from a traditional hypothesis. Yes, indeed we formulate hypotheses, once we have investigated/determined structures of the biological molecules we studied. But because my former department had mostly “traditional” labs, I had to follow the majority, and do a hypothesis-driven proposal.

The first complicating factor for me was choosing a topic. I went through probably 50 scientific papers before narrowing it down to 1 specific topic. Secondly, I could not have any input from my PhD mentor for topic selection, thus asking any kind of question (for instance, does this make for a sound project, or am I too ambitious?) was not allowed. Thirdly, you only had 1 month to write the proposal, and after handing it, you could be examined almost immediately. Lucky me …. I took the exam just days after handing the proposal. I was FREAKING out.

The way my qual worked out was that I stood in front of the examination committee for 2 hours, answering questions about any and all possible things that could be said about the topic. I killed the biological questions (after all, my college degree was in biological sciences, I should have been able to ace something), but when the hardcore questions came, those that were based on extrapolating knowledge, and concepts, that was the killer for me. I could not answer those well, and for it I failed.

It. Was. Though. I mean, I felt like the most stupid, idiotic, worthless piece of crap. EVER. I was devastated. I cried, I felt like I did not want to show my face around the professors from my department. I was a failure, and that’s all they would remember about me. Utter failure. Also, I felt like I was bringing shame to my group.

I thought failing this exam would define me for the rest of my life, but alas! Life does not have to be that dramatic.

I realized that there were things, knowledge I lacked. Specifically the parts of formulating a hypothesis and writing the proposal. See, during my first year of grad school all I did was try to get answers to lab related questions … basically from my sleeve (I always thought that the questions I got were from PI’s that had those same questions and wanted to get a clever answer which they had failed to come up for years … but this is just pure speculation of a bitter grad student). I came directly to grad school from an undergrad program. I had no counseling regarding the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts, to sitting down, ANALYZING a problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion just with scientific experiments.

I guess college is supposed to prepare you for that. And while you do lab work, you supposedly learn these tips, tricks and procedures. But I can honestly say that I went through my college experience without paying attention to that. All I was focused on was getting the highest grades possible, to get into a good medical or graduate program. It was never clear to me that the concepts and problems you learned in chemistry 101 would be useful some day, and could be applied to life in general. The only time I remember something like that happening was when I was taking Physics 2 and we had to solve a couple of problems using the soh-cah-toa method (good thing I remembered, I scored a 90+ in that one). Other than that, I felt like I was just memorizing facts, and nothing more.

I could go around blaming people for the things I didn’t learn in college, or how it seems like the system failed to prepare me for grad school. Ultimately, situations like failing your quals bring you back to the reality that you are in grad school, and like my PI from the PhD used to say, you’re here because you have the capacity to teach yourself, and then apply those concepts to help answer scientific questions.

At this point, my boyfriend, who’d taken at least a gazillion classes related to methodology sat me down, helped me organize my tasks and checked that my hypothesis seemed sound (now, I must tell you, the BF does not work in the “hardcore” sciences, yet his knowledge of methodology was superb and he provided support and tools that were much needed at the time). Equipped with readings the BF provided and lots of patience I reformulated my hypothesis, re-wrote the proposal and a month after failing my qual the 1st time, I took it again (with the same committee) and passed with flying colours.

It was my moment of glory. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I don’t think I was this happy, not even when my committee approved my thesis and granted me degree after the defense.

The exam committee met with me, and said they were super proud and that it was beyond clear to them that I had taken the time, studied and put in the effort to make things clear, for me and for them, and for that I was worthy of passing.

All in all, I would not have it any other way. Whenever I tell this story I say it proudly, because my efforts (and a very patient and competent boyfriend) got me through the process. It is not the end of the world. And after all this, doing the research to complete the PhD seemed like a piece of cake. I can honestly say that I can probably teach myself many things, and that even if I didn’t learn some things in grad school or college, I can always look for a good book, sit down, teach myself and practice.

So there you have it. Do not feel discouraged. It is not the end of the world, and better times are ahead. Trust me … I am now a doctor 🙂