Stefan Tarnawsky Oct 13, 2014
Medical school prepares you to be a doctor. To be a doctor, you need to understand human health. You need to care for patients, diagnose illnesses, treat disease. Medical school, therefore, has a clear goal: teach students how to care, diagnose, and treat patients. To graduate from medical school you must demonstrate proficiency in each of these skills.
Graduate school prepares you to be an independent thinker. To be an independent thinker, you need to generate new ideas. To generate new ideas, you must be able to acquire data, analyze it, and share your results through a conclusion. Graduate school, therefore, has an impossibly nebulous goal: teach students how to make discoveries and communicate their significance to others. To graduate with a PhD you must demonstrate proficiency in these skills.
The objective goals of a medical degree strong differ from the subjective ones of a PhD. As a result, the methods used to evaluate medical students cannot be used in graduate school. Proficiency in independent thought cannot be measured by a multiple-choice tests or the technical mastery of skills such as obtaining a History and Physical. Indeed, one might wonder: how does a graduate program determine whether its students have proven themselves to be independent thinkers?
The answer lies in the Thesis Committee. This Committee is unique for each student and consists of 4-6 faculty who work in fields closely related to the student’s research. These members will mentor you during your training, evaluate your progress, and ultimately decide if you should be given a PhD. At the end of the student’s training, he or she will submit their scholarly work as a written thesis to the Committee. They will review the thesis and vote whether the student should be granted a PhD. The decision does not need to be unanimous. If you obtain 50% +1 ‘yes’ votes (3/4; 3/5; 4/6, depending on Committee size), then you get the degree. If not, you may be able to continue your studies and attempt another defense at a later date. Or you might be asked to leave the program.
There are some funny quirks about the Committee. For instance, the student gets to choose all of its members. So effectively he or she will select the people who decide whether or not they get a degree. The only requirement is that each member must have a primary appointment in the student’s graduate department (eg: Biochemistry). Furthermore, the student is able to ask members to leave the Committee. In this manner, they could replace critical members with ones that’d look more favourably on their research.
I had my first committee meeting last month. I was nervous since I did not know what to expect. Other students often fret around Committee-time, while others appear care-free. I took no chances and over-prepared: I re-read all the seminal papers directly related to my research and tried to consider all potential outcomes of my proposed studies. In the end, it went smoothly; although fresh coffee, chocolates, and home-baked bread may have helped. The comments made by my Committee were more elucidating than critical. Indeed, they helped me devise better control experiments for my studies and consider papers in other fields that could provide helpful background for my work. Overall, I found it a helpful and none-too-jarring experience. As with most things, careful preparation –and some tasty snacks—can mollify any potentially troublesome situations. And since none of the members were overly critical I do not need to start looking for more friendly replacements – at least not yet.