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A PhD proposal defense

Not mine, at least not yet. A colleague of mine is defending his PhD proposal today and while I was going to wait until I did mine to go over the details about how that works and why we do it, I figured today was as good a time as any to do it. Besides I probably (definitely) repeat myself a lot around here, but that’s the catch with blogging daily. So let’s get into what a proposal defense is and why it’s important, shall we?

A lot of things happen in your third year as a PhD candidate. I’ve already done my qualifying exam which let me change my title from PhD student to PhD candidate (apparently a very US thing) and I’ve completed most of the things I need to do to finish my degree, but the third year is traditionally the most intense. That’s because of the second giant milestone that hits around this time, the proposal defense. Which is a very different thing than a PhD defense, so not a good thing to get those two mixed up!

Your proposal defense is essentially the start of YOUR work. That’s not always the case, as with my journey, my qualifying exam was essentially the proof of concept for my proposal. Still, most people won’t start doing the research they are interested in until they do their proposal defense. As the name implies instead of defending your PhD (and thus graduating) you are signalling to the school and to the people who will be your committee in your defense that you’ve selected your topic.

This is important because they have to approve your topic. They will be the people who decide if you get your PhD in the end, so making the committee selection is no small thing. I’ve already got my committee formed thankfully and here in my school it’s a group of five people, two of which need to be outside of the department I’m doing my work in. I have my Co-PI as one of those people since he’s with the hospital and not the school itself, which made life slightly easier… just slightly.

As with a qualifying exam, you write a report for your proposal outlining everything you’re planning to do and (in my case) you need to submit it to your committee two weeks prior to your defense minimum. That deadline seems to hold true for all the milestones from qualifying exam to the PhD defense itself, which is nice because I only have to remember the one deadline for every milestone. I already have too much to keep track of, so having the consistency is helpful. In theory two weeks is enough time for them to review your QE, proposal, or thesis, give feedback, and prepare for the oral portion of the defense.

For each milestone you are required — again in my case, the US is waaay different than other countries and even schools differ slightly — to give a 45 minute presentation. Sometimes the qualifying exam is literally an exam, that’s dependent on the school and even the department. I had to do an experiment to show I was ready and defend in front of basically the entire lab, my friend from a different department was just quizzed and it was a private event.

The proposal is typically a public thing and in this case we get to see the timeline for the work they propose, how they propose to do it, and any issues they expect to find along the way. We typically segment the main goals of our work into what’s called specific aims, or sometimes just aims. Those aims are a one to two sentence summary of what you want to achieve. The trick is that you usually have between two and three specific aims and they shouldn’t rely on the previous aim.

For example, say my PhD was on making the perfect chicken sandwich (if only it were that easy!). If aim one was to perfectly cook the chicken, aim two should be constructed in a way that doesn’t rely on the outcome of aim one. If the point of aim two was to construct the sandwich, I would have to word it in such a way that no matter what happens in aim one, I could still potentially achieve aim two. So aim two would be something like construct multiple sandwiches from different existing brands of chicken. That doesn’t mean I can’t include the chicken from aim one into aim two, it just means that even if it turns out I’m a horrible cook, the second aim can still be a success. Can you tell I’m getting hungry by my example?

Basically there’s a formula for how you construct your aims. There’s also somewhat of a formula for your slides and how they are presented and obviously the format for the paper that accompanies the proposal. That makes it sound easier than it actually is, there’s a lot of thought and effort that goes into your proposal. You need to do enough to justify getting a PhD, so my chicken sandwich idea is out, but you also need to be realistic. You COULD try to argue that you’re going to cure cancer for example, but your committee will shoot it down because you don’t have the time, resources, or experience for something like that.

It’s a balance between doing too little and doing too much, which is kind of the point of the proposal. You’re making sure your committee agrees that the work you’re doing is enough to earn a PhD. Once you do your proposal they kick everyone out besides you and the committee and during that time they ask you more questions or privately discuss things with you. Then the real nerve wracking part, they kick you out too and deliberate amongst themselves about the merits of your work and your proposed timeline.

Once that’s done they give you the outcome, either you’re proposal is approved or they ask you to modify it. You don’t really fail, but they can and often do ask you to make changes. My qualifying exam for example, the first time I defended my committee (which isn’t the same committee for my proposal defense or PhD defense strangely enough!) asked me to modify a few things before I got a pass. It was slightly embarrassing and it still makes me a little anxious to admit, but a win is a win and I passed after those changes so at the end of it all it was worth it.

The point of the process isn’t to fail you, although that can happen, the point is to make sure you’re being realistic from QE to PhD defense the milestones are set in a way to help guide you through the journey and to make sure you don’t spend too long in the program. My school for example gives you ten years (!!!) to finish your PhD before they drop you from the program all together, but a PhD usually takes between 5-6 years (sometimes longer, rarely shorter). Hitting your milestones helps show that you’re on track.

Originally I was going to defend my proposal this term, but I’m thinking it’s going to happen in the fall now. Not bad since that will give me more than enough time to collect and analyze my data, but it would’ve been nice to get it done now. My PI asked me to publish the work I did awhile back for the experiment I absolutely hated, but did anyway because I had to do it. Not a huge deal, I’m just not super thrilled about the whole thing since he was the one originally rushing me to do the proposal defense. That’s a whole other story that I technically covered already anyway.

Bottom line for today, the journey to a PhD isn’t a straight line, but at least there’s somewhat of a path carved for you.


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