Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Science) PhD 101

ChemE stands for chemical engineering.  I have a bachelor's of science from MIT in chemical engineering, and in September 2008 started in the Chemical engineering PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I really enjoy research, and the advanced degree is a necessity for all of the permanent jobs I have considered, both academic and industrial.  I realize that the majority of my posts center around running, but today I'd like to talk about being a PhD candidate.

One thing you may not know is that the majority of science PhD candidates are paid while working towards their degree.  They receive a stipend, health insurance and tuition is paid by the department or advisor.  In return, PhD candidates perform research and/or work as teaching assistants.  The stipend amount varies significantly and depends largely on the field of study and the school.  Engineering programs tend to offer better stipends than sciences, and theoreticians usually have stipends on the low end because that area of research isn't raking in the dough.  Highly ranked programs typically offer the most competitive packages.  In ChemE, UT Austin is ranked 6th by US News and World Report, and their stipend package is particularly generous amongst the top ranked programs.

A masters of chemical engineering is a rarity and unnecessary for a PhD program.  This really throws people off; usually when someone hears I am getting a PhD they assume I already have a masters.  That is absolutely not the case for ChemE, but tends to be true for other fields like mechanical engineering.  In chemical engineering, a masters degree is pretty much unmarketable and does not come with pay increases or a different job title.  Companies routinely hire chemical engineers with bachelors and masters degrees to do the same work.  A PhD however, comes with a significant pay increase, different job title and career path.  Furthermore, admissions into a graduate program for a masters is rare.  This is largely because the masters degree is awarded for course work (i.e. you take classes), which does not have the tangible benefit to the department that research does.  I had several friends from MIT interested in doing a masters in chemical engineering.  They submitted applications to top ranked schools, and their applications were automatically switched over to the PhD program, for which they were admitted.

One of the worst questions you can ask a PhD candidate like myself is how much longer they have.  Unfortunately, I get asked this question all the time, and it makes me feel bad because the answer is not so straightforward and inevitably, I have more time left than I would like to admit.  Many people assume that, like med school or law school or business school or veterinary school, a ChemE PhD program has a set length of time associated with it, and as long as you don't fail anything, you will finish in that time frame.

In reality, graduation hinges on the ability to set forth and accomplish unique research goals.  When I started my PhD, I selected an academic advisor whose lab I work in.  With the help of my advisor, I have crafted a thesis proposal that states my novel research goals.  I then selected a thesis committee and presented my proposed research to them for approval.  This committee is made up of 5 professors; my advisor, 2 additional UT ChemE professors, 1 professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at UT and 1 professor of Chemical Engineering from MIT.  This group of experts in my field are assembled to offer me guidance and suggestions, and evaluate the merit of my work.  When I have met my research goals, I will write a dissertation or thesis document, summarizing my work.  I will provide my committee members with a copy of the dissertation and give an oral presentation of the work.  This final presentation is called a thesis defense.  At that point, the committee will be asked to sign and approve my degree.  All members of the committee need to sign for the PhD to be awarded.  The College of Engineering will then review the degree, but this is usually a formality because they almost never go against the decision of the thesis committee.

The length of time required to achieve a PhD in the sciences is highly dependent on the specific project.  The whole idea behind research is to explore uncharted territory, and with that comes a lot of roadblocks, troubleshooting and failures.  Some people get lucky and have research projects that simply take off and work well from the start.  Others get very unlucky, and work for one or two years on something that completely fails and have to start over.  Most people fall somewhere in between.  The quicker things work and the less roadblocks along the way, the sooner you get your degree.

Two additional factors are the advisor and the department.  Advisors tend to graduate all of their students in the same time frame.  Some keep their students one to two years longer than the average, while others regularly graduate students a full year less than the average.  In my department, and chemical engineering in general, the average time is five or five and a half years.  I realize this is a long time, especially compared to something like an MBA, but the averages in the sciences is typically much more than that.  Biology PhDs at some of the top schools (including MIT) routinely take seven years to complete their degrees.

At the time I am writing this post, I am two and a half years into my PhD.  My advisor is new, with no track record (I joined his group in his first year), so there is no precedent for my group.  I am hoping to graduate in the average 5 years.  Some aspects of my project are working really well and moving along at an acceptable pace.  Unfortunately, some major aspects of my project are roadblocked and progress is stalled.  I also work with mammalian cells, which grow very slowly compared to the yeast and bacteria of my colleagues.  This makes my experiments slower and time consuming.  On the other hand, I have the pleasure of manipulating the genetic engineering of human cool is that?


  1. Interesting blog. It's good to see someone sticking up for us engineers and showing that we have many interests in life :) I agree with a lot of what you said. I would caution, though, on the "significant pay increase" a PhD gets over a BS. It is highly job dependent. There are BS jobs in industry starting at $70K and (very interesting!) government lab jobs that start at the same salary - I am seeing this as someone who has been in industry a while. I just mean to emphasize that getting a PhD is a choice in the kind of work one wants to do, not in how much one wants to be compensated. Not suggesting you did not already know that - just a caution for other readers!

  2. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

    PhD research guidance

    1. Thanks Abarshini, I appreciate the feedback!

  3. I totally agree with you that advisors are a big additional factor when getting a phd degree. It would be good to have an adviser that would truly help you write the phd dissertation rather than making it hard for you, like playing hide-and-seek with you.