Friday, August 5, 2016

Milestones Towards Your PhD

Congratulations! You have received admission into a doctoral program and will be supported by a fellowship or perhaps you will be working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA). For the latter you might be supported by a professor's research grant.

Many graduate students are now starting to move to their new homes which will be the universities at which they will be pursuing their PhDs. Some travel hundreds of miles and some cross oceans and continents in pursuit of their dreams.

Graduate school is quite different from being an undergraduate and now you are officially an adult. You have identified a subject which is your passion and that you want to do research in. This, in itself is an achievement.

You will soon be registering for courses, undergoing orientation, and maybe even meeting your advisor for the very first time in person. Some universities bring prospective doctoral students to campus for interviews, but not all do.

The first year of graduate school is always exciting, since, unless you stay on at your undergraduate alma mater (as I did and amassed 4 degrees from Brown University), everything will be quite new to you.  There will be a new campus to explore, new friends to make, and new exciting courses to take, with a greater focus than in your undergraduate studies.

Following your first year of graduate study there will, most likely, be Milestone 1 and that is the Core Exam. Today, for example, one of my doctoral students had the oral component of her core exam, which was based on a paper that she had written over the summer, which she defended in front of her committee. Some programs and schools have one or two day written exams only and in our Management Science doctoral program at the Isenberg School we used to have such a core exam.  A few years ago we changed the model and now a student writes a paper on a theme that is agreed upon by the committee chair and her committee and it should be on research that he/she was involved in already, which really helps since the sooner you get into research and have the momentum the better for you and your graduation. It also helps a lot on the job market to have some good papers already placed, if not published.

Below is a photo of my happy doctoral student with her committee members after a successful core exam today.
In the second year of your doctoral studies you will be taking more courses and this is, typically, the case even if you matriculated with a Master's. For example, in our program, the doctoral students very often come with a Master's in Industrial Engineering or several of my students have matriculated with Master's degrees in Civil Engineering with a focus on Transportation or Mathematics or even Statistics.

After the second year there is another Milestone to hurdle over - that of the Comprehensive Exam.  In some schools the comprehensive exam may be more of a dissertation proposal but in our program now this exam, as the name implies, should demonstrate breadth and depth of knowledge of a student based on coursework over two years. Again, a committee is formed, with a chair, and the committee prepares the exam, which the student works on over several weeks. After submission of the completed written part to the committee, an oral exam is held (not to be confused with going to the dentist).

When I was a doctoral student at Brown University I only had one exam and it was a long oral one.

Ideally, in the third year (usually at the end of the third year) a student should form a dissertation committee.  Some programs at UMass only require three members, including the chair. Ours requires four members and one member should be an external member.  The student prepares the dissertation proposal, which is written,  shares it with the committee, and, once a defense date is scheduled, then defends it orally with a presentation and is subject to questions. This is Milestone 3.

After the research for the dissertation is completed and the doctoral student's advisor is happy with the result a defense date for the dissertation is scheduled. This should be a pleasant and happy time (although I have been to defenses in which the student did not pass but this I believe is as much the fault of the advisor as of the student). The dissertation defense is Milestone 4 and, once the students passes this huge step, and the grad school and other paperwork is finalized and processed, the happy student can take part in gradation ceremonies to receive the PhD! Now you can be addressed as "Doctor!"

Next Friday, my 19th PhD student, Sara Saberi, will be defending her PhD. It is actually her second PhD. Some like to go through the above process more than once although it is certainly not common.

This will be an exciting occasion for both Sara and for her advisor as well as for the committee members. Sara will be an Assistant Professor at the Foisie School of Business at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which is  research university and an ideal place for her. She begins he new position later this month. I supported Sara for two years on a National Science Foundation (NSF) Future Internet Architecture (FIA) grant. Also, in our program doctoral students are required to teach and this helps them on the academic job market so, typically, a doctoral student would teach in their 4th year of our program.

Best of luck to all PhD students on their journeys!