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PhD proposal prep

Well I’ve finally made it to the next milestone in my PhD. I’m now at the point where I can do my proposal defense. It shouldn’t be too bad, but there’s a lot involved between now and then that needs to happen including coming to some sort of an agreement between my two PI’s about what exactly the project will consist of. Since I had no idea what getting a PhD entailed when I started, I’m assuming at least some of you have no idea what’s going on so let’s go over how we got here and what I’m getting ready to do.

Four years, it’s been a wild ride and COVID has been here for more of it than I would’ve liked. I picked an awful time to switch to human research that’s for sure. In any case, here we are. When I first came to the program I wasn’t sure what I needed to do or how to do it. No one in my family has a college education, much less a PhD so there was no guide for me outside of what Google would tell me. Now that I’m here I know what’s going on, but it is confusing so for those of you who are just starting and don’t have any frame of reference for what’s happening, trust me I know the feeling. It can be disorienting, but that’s part of why I’m writing this blog!

So how did we get here? After being accepted into the program I was a poor PhD student. You get called a student because there’s no promise you’re going to stay in the program. I’ve talked about it before several times, but it’s worth repeating. Your PhD is a meat grinder of awfulness and it shouldn’t be that way, but I have no power to make sweeping changes to the system so be warned.

After about a year in the program (well like 6 months, it happened really quick) I came up with an interesting idea that I wanted to pursue. So I chose to do a somewhat simple experiment for my qualifying exam. The qualifying exam format depends on your school, program, orientation of the moon, basically whatever the people in charge feel like. Sometimes it’s an actual exam, but for me it was a written experiment proposal and defense. The defense consisted of a hour long presentation with a question and answer section. Or it was supposed to last an hour, after the question and answer section it was closer to three. Yeah, it was rough and I didn’t do well the first time (that was actually the thing that made me decide to take on this project and here we are in year three!), but I passed the second round.

After that I was a PhD candidate, meaning the school thought I had what it takes to finish the program. That was almost two years ago exactly, so here we are two years later and I’m planning on taking the next step. Originally this was going to happen at the beginning of the year, I was super amped for it, but my main-PI changed his mind. That’s his prerogative and I’ll be honest the news made me a little angry (here).

The proposal is where the committee of my choosing agrees that the scope of research I want to do is “worthy” of a PhD. Really it means they make sure I don’t take on too much and don’t try to do the bare minimum to finish. They help me set my goals and set them in a timeframe that is achievable. It also means that I would make the switch to doing my research full time. I wouldn’t have to focus on outside stuff as much (or at all) and I had a clear path to the finish line. Your proposal defense is sort of like the last step before getting your PhD so it hurt having that pulled away from me last minute, but in the end it worked out for the best I guess.

Now unlike the qualifying exam, the proposal defense is mostly the same. Speaking of which, if you’re outside the US unfortunately none of this applies to you! My collaborator from the UK was super confused while I was explaining all of this to him, which is how I learned the UK system is nothing like the US. Here we propose our project, which is what our dissertation will be on. There is another written proposal and an hour long presentation with a chance for the committee to talk about everything with you. Some of this happens in private, some of it with the rest of the students in attendance, but mostly it’s just a way to check that your plan fits your timeline.

Once approved I can go and do my own experiments and what not. I’ll still need to include my main-PI and Co-PI in all this, but I would be expected to do work on my dissertation. The hope is that over next summer I will collect THE dataset. I always capitalize the, THE because it’s going to be the dataset that gets my PhD. It will be the last dataset I will need to collect basically (or at least the last one I need to finish my degree requirements).

One key thing to note here, you don’t need to succeed. A PhD is a chance to ask questions that are provocative or have no clear solution. It’s a way to explore a topic and add to the knowledge on it. If the answer to the question you’re asking is no, that’s not actually a thing, you still will get your PhD because you learned something important. The more exciting answer is yes this thing works, but it’s not a requirement. In fact, we’ve had at least one person since I’ve been in my main-PI’s lab who asked a question, found out the answer was there was no difference between the two groups he wanted to study, and still got his PhD.

Now I plan on doing my proposal defense at the end of the year, basically about the same time I did my qualifying exam years ago. Before that happens I need to write the IRB, a document that the school has to approve in order for me to do my experiments, which I’ll talk about in future posts for sure. Then I need to set the date with my committee, write the proposal itself, put together some slides, stress out about it, run through some practice presentations with my labmates, then finally in ~3 months defend my proposal.

First up is the IRB, so you’ll get to see what that process looks like very shortly. I haven’t had to write one because most of my research happens in the hospital and they take care of all that for me, but since I’m doing my experiments at the University, I need to have approval and that requires me to write the IRB myself. It will be a good learning experience so hopefully others will find my outline of the process helpful.

Now with all this laid out, I just need to reach out to my main-PI and Co-PI to go over my plan for my project. It’s going to be an interesting few months, so let’s hope my recent good luck holds until then!


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