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The PhD proposal

This horror story from phdcomics.com

Well I was somewhat caught by surprise yesterday when we had our weekly lab meeting and my PI reminded me specifically that I should be working on my PhD proposal. It’s yet another milestone that I need to accomplish on my journey to a PhD. I’m not exactly sure why the reminder caught me off guard, I’ve been planning it for a while now. So today I guess we should talk about what a PhD proposal really is and why I need to do one before I can continue my research.

Okay, first I should say that technically, I don’t have to do my proposal any time soon. We’ve had people in the lab do their proposal just a few months before their actual defense, but I wanted to do this in the traditional order. So the current plan is to do my proposal defense sometime in January. Not to be confused with the dissertation defense which is what I will do right before I become an official PhD.

A proposal defense is what I do when I fully dive into the original research that will somehow expand our knowledge in my field. The catch is I can’t just pick a topic at random, I need to know what I want to do and have a good reason for it, hence the proposal defense. It’s the milestone I cross that says I have a topic worth pursuing.

The first step is an important one, I need to get my committee together. In my case I need five people to form the committee. Three of them are from my department, the other two can come from the school or can come from outside the school as long as they hold a PhD or equivalent degree. Thankfully at this stage (basically still the start of my third year of PhD) I already have a good idea of who I want on my committee and how each of them will offer different insights into what I’m doing. This will be my committee from start to finish, by finish I mean finish of my degree, they will determine if I become a PhD or not.

Next, I need to write (don’t I always!?). I need to explain my topic, show any preliminary findings I have, explain the expected outcomes, rationale for the topic selection, pitfalls, hypotheses, methods, etc. The document will probably be ~10 pages long and will be well referenced with similar work in the field. The important part here is to be clear in how I showcase my work and the findings I expect to have, but also highlight what may go wrong and how I plan to correct for that.

They will read it a few weeks prior to my proposal defense and then the day of my proposal defense I will have ~45 minutes to go through my plan via powerpoint slides. They will inevitably grill me about my methods and my PI will most definitely try to put me on the spot. It’s just how we do things in the lab, it’s not malicious, he just wants us to be able to really know what we are talking about in depth.

It’s a big step and I’m excited to make the jump. I have enough preliminary data to make the step, but unfortunately I need to collect more if I want to publish anything. The topic (of course) is my “super secret” technique that I’m excited to explore more. I’ve still got a few months to get everything in order and make sure I select the people I really want for my committee, but I’m excited to see where this goes.

The best news is that my PI brought it up without me asking. That tells me he thinks I’m ready for it, which is even more exciting. I still owe you all the story of how I really upset him, but I guess I’ll be saving that for another day. Right now, I’m just excited that he thinks I’m ready to take this next step!

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