Last week, after two years of coursework, literature review, grant writing, laboratory experiments, attendance at local and national meetings, abstract presentations, journal clubs, etc. I finally, officially became a PhD Candidate.
You ask: then what were you before last week?
A good question.
During the first portion of graduate school, students learn the basic concepts and techniques of their field. We attend courses to broaden our knowledge. We obsessively read current and dated articles to learn the foundations of our chosen field. We complement these intellectual studies in the laboratory. We experiment: we learn basic techniques such as cell culture, in vitro biochemical analysis, and mouse work. We learn – painfully and first-hand – why control experiments are an absolute requirement for all studies, however trivial they may seem.
As we meander between classes, literature review, and experiments we begin to acquire a corpus of knowledge. Is so doing, we start to appreciate the intricacies of that knowledge and we question the foundations upon which it rests. This questioning ultimately leads to a hypothesis: an evidence-based idea supported by previous studies but not proven by them. We consider the technical skills we’ve acquired and consider how to use them to test that hypothesis at the lab bench. There, successes and failures will lead us to progressively refine our hypothesis. With time, the once fluid hypotheses becomes solidified and we write these ideas down as a PhD Thesis Proposal. This document (7-25 pages, depending on department) summarizes our literature review, highlights its support for our hypothesis, and outlines in depth the experiments we will perform to test it.
Now comes the fun part. The Thesis Proposal must be defended – both in writing and as an oral presentation – before your Advisory Committee. This group of 4-5 faculty will evaluate the merits of your ideas: do you understand the current dilemmas facing your field? Does your hypothesis address these dilemmas? Would your proposed work contribute something novel to the field? Will your experiments provide unequivocal answers or is there potential for ambiguity and diverse interpretations?
These are challenging standards to meet. And your Advisory Committee will be thorough in its evaluation of your proposal. However, they will also help you. They will provide suggestions for improvement and alternate experimental approaches that may be more suitable to answer your hypothesis. Indeed, I am tremendously indebted to my Committee members, Drs. Merv Yoder, Rebecca Chan, Reuben Kapur, and Raghu Mirmira, for their invaluable guidance. Last week’s meeting reminded me the merit of having a Committee with diverse expertise: developmental hematology, pediatrics, leukemia, esoteric biochemistry, all were well represented last week. And I obtained valuable advice from each of them.
At the end of the meeting, after all the discussions, questions, and suggestions, the PhD Qualifying document was signed. I passed. By then, it was almost an afterthought. The true value of Qualifying is in having your proposed ideas vetted by experts and to acquire their guidance. The true reward of Qualifying is the entry to the second half of graduate school, when you have permission to harness your intellectual and technical prowess and perform the experiments that you’ve been planning for years. For me, that’s plenty. I cannot wait to get back in the fray, rekindled with a clear purpose and knowledge that I am on the right path on the road to the PhD.