Grad school update

As I’ve been talking with non-academic friends and family, I’ve realized that not many people understand what actually happens in grad school. I also realized that I don’t talk about it a lot on my blog. I guess it’s one of those things where after doing something all day long, I don’t exactly want to come home and write about it. But I’m in an interesting stage of my grad school career, so I thought I’d fill you in.

I’m currently in the second year of my PhD program. PhD programs in the biological sciences are similar but not identical, so what I say here doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. For example, my program has first year rotations. We spend fall, winter, and spring quarters doing research projects in different labs. This is to give us exposure to different types of research that we may not have experienced before, and to figure out if the personality of the lab is a good fit for us.

And yes, labs have very distinct personalities. Some expect you to be there 9 to 5, others don’t care when or if you’re physically there as long as you get work done. Some PIs (Principal Investigator – the professor who runs the lab) micromanage, others can be impossible to get a hold of. Some labs are close knit and do lots of social activities together, and others are more distant. These are all things you have to take into consideration in addition to the research, because you actually want to be happy for the next four years.

After your rotation, you pick a lab. With programs that don’t do rotations, you join a lab immediately.

In year 2, you’re deciding your thesis project. What the heck are you going to be researching for the next four years? What questions do you want to ask, and how are you going to investigate them? What kind of experiments are you going to do? What’s your backup plan in case everything goes horribly wrong?

For the curious, my thesis topic is the evolution of microRNA in primates. And that’s about all I can say before I publish anything, unfortunately.

The real purpose of the plan is to make sure you have some goals and guidelines and show that you can think scientifically. It’s not necessarily set in stone. If one of your research ideas just isn’t panning out, there’s no point in continuing down that road. On the flip side, if something completely unexpected and awesome pops up, you should definitely pursue it. The plan is flexible.

But again, you need to prove that you can come up with a general plan and think scientifically. The first step is forming a thesis committee. In my department, your committee has three main components:

  1. Your PI, who serves as committee chair. They’re theoretically supposed to act more as a moderator, but some professors have a problem not throwing in their 2 cents (shocking, I know).
  2. Two or more committee members who can give insight into your project. If you’re collaborating with another lab, their PI will usually be on your committee. Otherwise you try to bring in people whose expertise will help with your project. For example, I picked someone who specializes in human population genetics, in human evolution and statistics, and in classical genetics and evolution.
  3. Your Graduate School Representative (GSR). I think this is something fairly unique to the University of Washington. Your GSR is someone outside of your department who’s your advocate and makes sure your exams are conducted fairly. They can be utterly unrelated to your field if your heart desires or if you have a random professor you really like, but many people use their GSR as a way to fill a missing expertise on their committee. For example, I picked someone with a computational background.

I just formed my committee, and my next step is to have my first committee meeting (in a couple of weeks, gah). The point of committee meetings is to give an update on what you’ve done so far and what you plan to do, and for your committee to give criticism and guidance. The first committee meeting is basically a “This is what I plan to do for my thesis” overview, and your committee sends you off with 438294742 questions about your plan that you need to figure out before your…dun dun dun…General Exam.

In my department, your General Exam is in late May or early July. I like to describe it as the time where people decide whether or not to kick you out of grad school. You get two to three hours to present what you’ve accomplished so far and what you plan to do. Most of the time is spent answering questions from your committee. You’re expected not only to have a solid research plan, but to be extremely familiar with all the prior research and biological concepts relating to your project. It’s basically a 45 minute presentation that’s turned into a 3 hour oral exam. It’s accompanied by a written proposal of your project, but the general consensus is that your committee will read that 30 minutes before you exam (if they read it at all) and it’s not as important. Yes, Professors are procrastinators too.

If you have no clue what you’re talking about, are obviously unprepared, and there’s no hope for improvement, your committee can outright flunk you. You’re done with the graduate program, and if you’ve accomplished enough maybe you can leave with a Master’s degree. This is pretty rare, though. Most of the times you pass, or pass with revisions – you have to edit your written proposal or write extra information about how you’ll deal with your committee’s major concerns.

And then you go drink heavily.

So, if I haven’t been blogging as frequently, or blog even less frequently in the future, that’s why. My first committee meeting is in less than two weeks, and then I’ll be preparing for my General Exam. Which is kind of a Big Deal, in case I didn’t make that clear. I’m especially busy since I’m still trying to do some speaking events, because I’m crazy like that. …And because I can do my work on planes. Hooray for computational work!


  1. LTFT says

    You forgot the part where, in year four, you give up on your proposal, switch projects completely, and dash madly towards graduation.

    That aside, good luck.

  2. Libby Anne says

    Good luck with everything! I’m in grad school too, and you’re right that people often aren’t familiar with the process. It’s also important to remember that each field does it differently, and each school’s program even within a field has its own eccentricities.

  3. Bill Door says

    Some expect you to be there 9 to 5, others don’t care when or if you’re physically there as long as you get work done.

    …and some expect you to be there 9am to 9pm, as well as all day Saturday.
    Don’t work for these people… just run far, far away.

  4. Melanie says

    Yeah…glad I have no plans on going to grad school. I’d lose what little of my mind I still have.

  5. says

    Yeah. I’m in one of those “I don’t care if/when I see you, as long as you’re doing work” labs. It’s pretty hard to predict who will be in the lab at what time.

  6. Kelly says

    Yes, I made very sure to be in a lab where the PI does not care when I’m around. I made it very explicit that I expect to have a life, and that I won’t be working weekends or evenings unless I need to monitor my experiments for some reason (sometimes I have to be at 3 am to check things), or I have a major deadline coming up. It’s very nice to be working for a PI that supports that wholeheartedly. I interviewed with a few PIs who were more the “you should also be here on Saturdays” type… eep. No, thank you.

    Good luck with your program, too! I’m also in my second year in biomedical engineering. We have a very similar general exam, which I will probably be taking sometime this summer, too.


  7. Bill Door says

    Mine is similar. It’s more ‘results based;’ my boss doesn’t care exactly how much I work, time-wise, as long as the data flows in at an acceptable rate. The downside to this setup is that it is completely possible to work yourself to death without producing any meaningful data.

  8. Alex SL says


    PhD programs in the biological sciences are similar but not identical

    And then of course there are other countries, where things work even more differently. Like in my own, where, traditionally, the “program” went as follows:

    1. Do usually three (to four) years of research. Either publish a bunch of articles or write a book-dissertation.
    2. Defend the thesis or pass an exam, depending on the university.

    That’s it, and that is how it was for me. These days, they move towards more requirements, such as taking courses and getting credits for visiting conferences. As far as I understand, the reasoning is that things are always better in the USA, amirite, so we always have to kind of make a half-baked copy of what you do (but usually without providing the funds to get it right, of course), like changing the name of our uni degree from Diplom to M.Sc.

    I am not sure whether I am happy with the changes anyway. The more you force people into a corset like that, the less possible it becomes to do unusual projects. How would you ever get the credit points from coursework if you plan to spend half of your doctorate research not physically at your uni but in the northern Bolivian lowlands studying the language of a local rainforest tribe, for example? (Not me personally, but I met grad students like that during my own field work in South America.)

    In year 2, you’re deciding your thesis project.

    Now this just blows me away. You actually start a PhD program and have no idea why and for what? You spend over a year supposedly working towards your PhD without knowing what it will even be about? And, if I understand correctly, without even knowing who your supervisor will be?

    Systems really are different, I guess. If I had simply written “no idea, ask me again in a year or two” into my application, I would simply not have received a scholarship to do my doctorate research, full stop. The funding agency evaluated my project for its merits just as much as my qualifications and character.

  9. says

    For my phd (in electrical engineering, I know pretty different) our General Exam wasn’t taken until about 1-1.5 years before graduation. It wasn’t an issue for me, but it always seemed like it allowed for people who really shouldn’t be getting a doctorate to linger around…

  10. Brian says

    For the curious, my thesis topic is the evolution of microRNA in primates. And that’s about all I can say before I publish anything, unfortunately.

    Please do feel free to talk about the topic in broad general terms, though. I do like my blog reading to give me the occasional educational fragment.

  11. Chrissy says

    This is actually extremely helpful for those of us who want to go to grad school but are currently stuck in a craptacular helper monkey job that just solidifies our desire to continue our education… I’ll always read anything you have to say on the topic of grad school.

  12. Bill Door says

    Now this just blows me away. You actually start a PhD program and have no idea why and for what? You spend over a year supposedly working towards your PhD without knowing what it will even be about? And, if I understand correctly, without even knowing who your supervisor will be?

    When you join a lab at the end of the first school year, you know roughly what your thesis will be about because you know what the lab you chose studies. And it quite often happens that the Thesis topic you chose in your second year is abandoned or modified by your third year due to impossibility/getting scooped/etc. It’s not really that important that you choose the correct thesis topic right away. Much better to make sure that you publish well by the end of your graduate studies on something. No one reads your thesis; potential employers read your papers and your letters of recommendation. Most likely, whatever you studied as a grad student won’t be what you study for the rest of your life, so it doesn’t pay to be too picky about your thesis topic.

  13. Riptide says

    @ #5

    Technically, it should be “close-knit”, since compound adjectives are hyphenated in English; without the hyphen it should be “closely knit”. /pedant

  14. ender says

    Hm. My grad school experience involves reading 1,000 or so pages per week and writing about it. The closest thing we have to a lab is where all of the TAs have their offices and complain to each other about their students.

    But since I am in history of science, I do get to go hang out at ecological research stations and see what their stories are.

  15. cnjnrs says

    I dropped out of physics grad school. (I got my master’s, so when I’m trying to sound positive, I prefer to say that I quit while I was ahead.) I am envious of your research rotation. I spent my first two years taking classes and failing to get involved in research. It wasn’t really expected of us to get into research until the second or third year, and we just had to go ask random professors entirely on our own if they had something for us to do. In the summer before my third year, I sort of got started on research, but ended up not getting along with the professor very well (he would make appointments to talk to me about my work, and then he wouldn’t show up), which is most of why I left and got a job.

    Your other stuff though, mostly the oral exams and DRINKING, sounds pretty similar to what I had. Anyway it’s interesting to hear about other people’s experience. Good luck with your exam!

  16. Anony says

    Also, you tend to wait until year 2-3 to even apply for outside fellowships (except for a few rare ones you can get earlier) because you have to have a research proposal first. The school and/or lab pays you until you get outside funding (and maybe your whole time in the program). You just have to convince them you have potential to get into the program. This is one reason it takes like 5-6 yr on average to finish (unlike only 3-4 in Europe, grumble grumble…).

  17. Anony says

    We have comps after the first year (“write a grant and make a presentation about a scientific question that will NOT be your thesis topic that we will then grill you about”) to test “scientific potential,” so you know pretty quickly if you are wasting your time in grad school. If you fail, you get a second chance too, which is nice. Also, as long as you didn’t fail your classes, you can get your Master’s if you fail your comps, so a 1 yr Master’s ends up being a pretty nice parting gift for those that don’t make it in the program.

    Our thesis proposal is separate, in year 2-3 (and they won’t kick you out at that point – they’ll just make you change your project if it sucks). It’s a different setup than other PhD programs even under the same “umbrella” set of programs at my school, so I imagine each school does it differently too.

    We also do the committee a little differently. Instead of having “an outsider” to be your advocate, we just stipulate that your chair cannot be your adviser. This way you will have someone to stick up for you (and have more power) if your adviser is being unreasonable about expectations for the project.

    As someone within 6 months of defending, I say good luck on everything! There is a light at the end of that tunnel!

  18. says

    When the time came for me to find a research advisor I looked for someone who (1) was available, (2) who had definite standards but who gave me freedom in working hours and (3) who was philosophically compatible. I lucked out on all three criteria, though of course I had a pretty good idea I would from my first-year lab rotation.

    Every department seems to handle qualifying exams differently. I had a two-part prelim, administered my second and third years: the second part was a research proposal, written up as an abbreviated R01 without budget, on my dissertation topic; and the first part was the same thing on a topic I knew nothing about beforehand. Loads of fun, that.

  19. Thomas Schratwieser says

    Thanks for writing this. I’m in the second year of a Physics PhD in the UK and I have no clue what a US science doctorate, much less one in Biology, is like. I hope your General Exam goes well, and that the research is fruitful!

  20. says

    Just a little drop to this pool of information:

    In Czech Republic, and AFAIK in many EU countries, you are obliged to get your Master/Magister/Diplom Engeneer Degree first before you are allowed to apply for Phd. The procedure goes mostly as follows:
    1. three years for Bachelor degree finished with work writen on the basis of previous research. This can be ommited.
    2. two (or five – see 1.) years for Ma./Mgr./Ing. degree with some minor own research, finished with written paper of prescribed length on that research and oral exam and evaluation/defense of your paper.

  21. Diane says

    Always interesting to hear how other schools do it. I’m nearing the end of my 8th (*sob*) year but am defending in April, thank the FSM. I’m in E&E so it’s much less structured than a molecular bio program, which is good and bad. Good luck with your committee meeting!

  22. M Groesbeck says

    That answers a few questions for me regarding some of the earlier comments by non-U.S. people. Here, depending on the field and personal academic/work history, it’s quite possible to enroll in a PhD program right out of undergrad (Bachelor’s-level, though it’s usually four years here) studies. In some fields it’s most common to go for a Master’s instead of a PhD; for academic and research work, though, most job openings want someone with a PhD, so the MA/MS gets rolled into the PhD program. (Basically, yes, a PhD program is five years — but the first year or two are basically a Master’s program, and some PhD programs will give their PhD students an MA/MS/etc. once they advance beyond a certain point.)

  23. Nick says

    Anyone considering grad school should read this (comment thread included). Kudos all round.

  24. says

    All: I’m on the road heading to town and eventually the airport. My pug heart nor my sled dog heart can take this. I’m sick. I don’t know how much harder I can pray.

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