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Monday, August 31, 2015

What’s It Like to Get a Ph.D. in Science?

This question originally appeared on Quora, the best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge.

Your adviser will happily ignore you for years so long as you churn out good data for his or her grants.
Photo: Purestock/Thinkstock

Answer by Tom McNeill, Ph.D., director of scientific computing, Virtual-Rx, Inc.:

It will be lonely, and you are on your own without a net.
 Unlike business, medical, or legal education, a Ph.D. in a hard science is an individualized apprenticeship. No two Ph.D. experiences are identical; your program is unique to you. You and your fellow students will share similar ups and downs in your development, but the content and context will be different for each of you. You will be diving into areas of study that few people will understand. In truth, the number of people who will be able to discuss your work as peers world wide will probably be able to fit in your office. This means you need to have the skills to assimilate what you know and apply them to expanding your chosen field. The best bit of advice I can give you is to look to other fields for answers to your questions. For example, systems biologists need to look to electrical engineering and certain branches of math for solutions to problems. Learn to think by analogy. But, most importantly, understand this, your successes will be shared with your larger group, your failures are only yours.

As you progress through your program you will become socially isolated. Cocktail parties with “civilians” become mine fields of awkwardness. You will dread the question, “So, what do you do?” Can you imagine the look of fright and bewilderment on that cute real estate agent's face when you say, “I'm studying genetic engineering,” or “I'm working on ways to test our nuclear arsenal”? At best, you will get a Wow, that sounds hard, before he or she looks for a way to gracefully leave you. You see, “civilians” don't know what to do with you; you scare them. Even worse, the dreaded question, “So when will you be finished?” This is a seemingly innocent question that is the bane of every grad student's existence. When asked, you will stumble and fumble for an answer, leaving your listener utterly confused because in his mind, you go to school, go to class, and after enough classes you are done, right? Wrong! This whole concept of invention and advancing the field is beyond him or her.

Your dissertation topic might not be related to your future work.
Your dissertation is the body of work that demonstrates you have the skills required to join the fraternity of the scientist-scholar. That's all it is. It does not need to be the most elegant bit of science ever constructed; it just needs to be something you can defend before your committee. Now, go write you dissertation.

Truth of the matter is that your dissertation topic is only really relevant for at most five years (maybe 10 if you are really cutting edge). After that, what you did is really old news.

Choosing your institution is your least important choice.
Is a Ph.D. from Harvard any different than one from Fresno Tech? No—you are both called doctor. What matters is who you did your work under, not the name on your degree. Yes, the institution carries prestige, but it is your adviser's connections and reputation in the community that matter the most. Additionally, you need to think about lifestyle a little bit. The stipends are pretty close to parity without regard to institution. This means your stipend is the same in Boston as it is in Bloomington, Indiana. Different parts of the country are more expensive than others—take this into consideration. Generally, save the big name-brand institutions for your postdoc. It looks better on your CV to show continued improvement in brand than it does to get you degree from a big name-brand and postdoc at a second- or third-tier institution.

A bit of advice for those of you at big-name institutions: You are good, you are working with some of the best in the field, and you should be proud of that. However, at every second-tier and third-tier university, there is someone there who is as good or better and smarter than you are. The first truly scary genius I ever met did not come from Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. She came from a third-tier school in North Dakota.'

Source: Slate Magazine (blog)