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. Lab work is important with regards to science to make sure that accurate experiments are done, in the future the biological science classes could help you gain the necessary scientific knowledge needed to take and pass your CPA review course with flying colours, this is why lab work is essential!

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!