Tuesday, June 21, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in medicine from New York

Today, I have invited Rachel Ames to talk about her PhD Defense. Rachel completed her PhD in the Pathology Department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she currently remains as a research fellow while applying for postdoctoral fellowships. For her PhD thesis work, she studied transcriptional regulation of CD4+ T cell responses to Plasmodium parasites. In addition to immunological research, Rachel is interested in improving research training quality and efficiency, and in effective science communication to diverse audiences. You can connect with her on Twitter @rachelyames.

Here's a "secret" no graduate student really likes to admit - many of us imagine ourselves defending when we watch another student's thesis defense. You think about what it would feel like, what you would say - and then sometimes worry that that day will never come. So when that day finally arrives, it feels like a somewhat surreal experience, with both feelings of deja vu as well as the new excitement of this rite of passage finally happening.

At Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, students must obtain permission to write and defend their thesis from their advisory committee, comprised of at least three faculty members in addition to your mentor. In addition to completing all required coursework and a qualifying exam, our university requires a manuscript be at least submitted to a peer-reviewed journal as a degree requirement. Permission is therefore usually obtained after this paper is submitted, or if the student appears to be very close to that point (the manuscript can be submitted up to the day of your defense, technically, but that is not recommended!). The written thesis document is to be distributed to the thesis committee members three weeks prior to the defense date to allow time for the committee to assess the document and raise issues in advance of the defense, if necessary. Typically, the thesis committee consists mainly of members of your advisory committee (if scheduling allows), an alternate to ensure sufficient quorum in the case of a last minute cancellation, and one expert in your field from outside of your institution.

I defended my PhD thesis last November, and I found it to be a truly enjoyable experience. Both Albert Einstein and the State of New York require a public seminar as a portion of the thesis defense, which is then followed by a closed-door oral exam for one-to-two hours. Because of the public seminar format, many students take the opportunity to invite family and friends, and it is really nice to share that occasion with those individuals who have probably spent many years wondering what exactly you were doing with your time. Often, even for friends in my own graduate program, their thesis defense was the first time that I really grasped the big picture of what they were studying, as we were spread out in different departments. It is also a nice opportunity to thank all those who supported your PhD work, both from a scientific perspective as well as those who supported you personally - who are just as essential to the work but are not frequently publically recognized.

The oral exam, for me, was also very pleasant - after countless hours writing the thesis in a mostly solitary setting, I found it to be really enjoyable to discuss the field and my data with my committee during the defense. This session is typically a relaxed discussion, mostly regarding implications of your work or any questions the examiners may have regarding the specifics of your field. The qualifying exam, which takes place two years into the PhD program at Einstein and involves a grant-style proposal of your project, occurs at a time while you are often still trying to wrap your head around all the basics of your research, both the techniques and literature of the field. By the time of the thesis defense, you should know well which things you know, don't know, and what is still to be discovered, and that deeper knowledge makes discussing the work so much more enjoyable, rather than feeling like a classic "exam."

The PhD process is a test in itself, both testing you day to day on your understanding of basic principles and your field, as well as testing your mettle over many years of hard work. Rather than an intense exam, the day of my defense felt more like a capstone of that process, an opportunity to look back at what I had created and learned, and all the people that had helped me get there.

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