5 Commonly Asked Questions About Being a PhD Student

Unless you grew up in an academic family, most people have no idea what being a PhD student is actually like. Academia may not be for everyone, but whether you are a high school student or a 4th year undergraduate, here are some things you may not have known about pursuing a PhD degree.

  1. Money. Student debt. These are things we are constantly hearing about on the news in regards to university students. Did you know, there are a lot of scholarships and awards for PhD students? If you play your cards right, you can get paid to do a PhD! Typically, awards will pay for your tuition and a stipend for your day to day expenses. Some awards will even cover your new laptop and travel costs to conferences. That being said, you are typically still on a student-budget because the stipends tend to be very modest. 
  2. When will you graduate? Obviously this will be different between universities, subjects, and countries. But on average, a Canadian (and in the US) PhD will take between 4-6 years. On the other hand, PhDs in Europe tend to be shorter at 3-4 years. There are advantages and disadvantages to a longer vs shorter PhD, so it is best to chat with your supervisors when you apply to different programs. When you first start, it is hard to predict exactly when you will graduate since research itself can be unpredictable. 
  3. Do you go to class? Some programs require you to go to courses in your first year, but after that you will focus 100% on your research. This means you have a lot of flexibility in your degree, but it also means it is up to you to keep on track. Personally, I like to set small milestones every 2-3 months and then go on a weekend holiday after I achieve the milestone. 
  4. How do you get graded/ pass? There are typically three big milestones for a PhD student/ candidate. First is passing your qualification exam/ comprehensive exam/ viva (there are tons of names for this exam around the world). This exam happens typically within 1-2 years of your study to ensure you are a suitable candidate for the PhD project. At my university, we are required to submit a “first year report” to two examiners, which is then followed by an oral presentation and exam of what you did and what you plan to do for the rest of your degree. You must pass this step in order to become a PhD candidate. The second massive milestone is submitting a soft-bound copy of your thesis to your examiners. Your thesis is a comprehensive body of original research that you have conducted during your degree. It is much lengthier than a research paper, and often it will show the good, the bad, and the ugly turns in your PhD. Imagine trying to write up every little thing you did for the past 3 years – that is often the situation final year PhD students find themselves in. The final milestone before you become a Dr. is your oral defence/ viva. Your soft-bound thesis is submitted to 2-3 examiners who thoroughly read it before your defence. During this oral examination, you typically give a 30-45 minute presentation of your work. Afterwards, the examiners will ask you questions about your research. After all that, you will receive your “grade”, either a pass with no corrections/ pass with minor corrections/ pass with major corrections/ recommend only pass with a Master’s/ or outright fail.  
  5. Do you have to be super smart to do a PhD? Definitely not. It is way more important to be curious, hard working, and resilient as a PhD student. Obviously, you need to understand your work, but it is okay if it takes you a couple read throughs/ explanations to fully understand what is going on.

Bonus: What do you do after a PhD? Anything and everything you want to do. There are so many different options after a PhD. The most well-trodden path is pursuing an academic career by doing a post-doc and then applying for junior faculty positions. Another popular option is to work in industry; for biology, this typically means pharmaceutical companies. Other common options  include going into consulting, starting your own company, and teaching. Having a PhD demonstrates that you can start and finish a project, and often you will come out of your degree with translatable skills that you can apply elsewhere. 


Image Credit: Burst

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