Graduate student and astronomy writer


On the Road to a PhD: Houston, we have a defense date!

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

It’s official. The cats have been herded, the votes have been tallied, the gods (aka the Department Assistants) have spoken. I have officially scheduled the date and time for my dissertation defense.

Tuesday, May 9th at 10am EST.


That’s…2 months, 4 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes and 58 seconds from now. 57 seconds. 56 seconds. Oi vey, the countdown has started!

What does that mean for me right now? Well, that means that I need to get my behind into gear and…

1) finish up the data analysis that has caused my research to lag for the past few weeks.

2) write up the last bit of the research that I’m currently working on. I would like to get this to a point that it can be submitted to a research journal before my defense, so that the text can also be incorporated into my dissertation.

3) write the paper on astronomy communication that I want to submit to a different journal. Luckily, this one doesn’t need to be submitted before my defense.

4) write all of the introductory and background  material for my dissertation. All of the extra stuff that connects my (currently) very disjointed chapters.

One of my committee members likes to measure dissertation progress based on the number of pages one need to write per day before the dissertation is submitted. At Penn State, the dissertation needs to be given to the committee two weeks before the defense, which for me is April 25th. So, in 51.73 days I need to write/edit approximately 300 total pages, which comes out to 5.8 pages per day.

Now, I’ve already written about 150 of those pages, so those really just need to be edited for spelling, grammar, and cohesion with the rest of the dissertation. So, let’s say that I still need to write 150 more pages and then edit all 300 later on. That is only 2.9 pages per day of writing original text.

That sounds like a lot, to be true. But truth be told, it’s not a lot in actual words. In the particular format that Penn State requires for its dissertations, a single page of text (no equations, tables, or figures) holds about 450 words. So, that’s 67,500 words to write before I submit my dissertation, or 1305 words per day.

But since this is scientific research, there will be equations, figures, and tables to incorporate, so in reality the number of words to write will be lower than that, and some of the pages will be taken up by figures or tables that have already been generated. Things are not quite as dire as they seem, to be sure.

Still…I best get to it! Only 2 months, 4 days, 18 hours, 22 minutes and 44 seconds to go!

On the Road to a PhD: Thesis Committee Meetings

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

So, there’s a really important part of getting a PhD that I haven’t talked about yet, and that is the thesis committee. I just had what will probably be my final thesis committee meeting before I defend my dissertation, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about what a thesis committee is, what they do, and why we meet with them all the time.

A thesis committee is a group of usually 3-6 professors whose task it is to evaluate your readiness for being a Doctor of Philosophy in your field. They approve your dissertation, listen to your defense talk, and ask you many many questions to evaluate the breadth and depth of your knowledge on your thesis topic. Their goal is to see if you work and think and act like an expert in what you claim to be an expert in.

…that’s a weirdly accurate description

Many people think of the thesis committee like the gatekeepers of academia. Like…the Keeper of the Bridge of Death from Monty Python. “Who would pass the Doctoral Defense must answer me these questions three, ere the other side she see.”

But in reality there’s a lot more to a thesis committee than just a group of test examiners. Your thesis committee should be comprised of people who know you and the work you’ve done during your graduate career. They are your advocates, your support group, your guidance, and your allies. They monitor your progress from the time you start seriously working on things you’ll put in your thesis, make sure you’re making good academic progress, check that you’re developing skills needed to later go into the workforce. They suggest collaborators, ideas and points of views you haven’t thought of, directions for your work or connections you could make.

They ensure that you’re applying for the right jobs, that when you graduate you’ll move on to something you’re qualified for. And they make sure you’re qualified for what you want to do. They provide a realistic view of your accomplishments in grad school and how they will be viewed outside your little academic bubble. They know because they’ve been there and they have the perspective that you as a graduate student don’t have from the trenches.

And if they don’t do those things, they shouldn’t be on your committee. Period.

To do all of these things, your committee needs to meet about once every 6 months to a year during the titular “thesis committee meetings.” These are organized by me, the grad student. During committee meetings, the grad student updates their committee on the research progress they’ve made since the last meeting, any academic achievements gained or milestones passed, career related things…essentially anything the committee members need to know in order to help you advance (aka, their job). This can take anywhere from an hour to three hours (oi vey, that was a loooooong meeting).

And one of the hardest jobs in academia is getting multiple professors in the same room at the same time for longer than an hour. Seriously, it’s like herding cats. And I have six of them to wrangle. Professors, I mean. Not cats. Planning thesis committee meetings is a serious test of your organizational and management skills. That should go on my resume…Anyways. Back on topic.

Your direct academic or research advisor is the head of your committee. They generally know you and your work the best, have seen nearly all of what you’ve worked on during your X many years as a grad student, been the PI on your research projects, etc. They can fill in the blanks if your other committee members have questions you can’t answer. Then, the rest of the committee is generally up to you.

The Thesis Committee - PhD Comics

Seriously, will they read it? Who knows!

OK, probably not this. Definitely not this. This is so wrong, so don’t think this is what a thesis committee should be. Your professor shouldn’t be your worst enemy. They are the most realistic about your accomplishments, know what you’ve done and what you still need to do. Your committee shouldn’t have an adversary. Your committee should only have allies. Honest ones, but allies nonetheless.

Maybe people you’ve collaborated with on a project, or who work in a closely related subject, or are a mentor of yours. Someone only peripherally related to your work, but who has a broader background that you can draw on. Someone who remembers what it’s like to be a grad student.

In my opinion, a token “famous” person can be a pretty useless committee member unless they know you and your work. Someone who doesn’t really know you or your work, or care to do so, but who you can brag and say was on your committee. Eh, sure, if you have all the rest of the support network in place, go for it. But someone who isn’t your advocate or doesn’t pull their weight on a committee doesn’t really serve a purpose.

Most (all?) graduate programs require that one of your committee members is someone outside of your department. This is ostensibly to get an objective outside view that your work is PhD quality. Some people go for a random person (like an english literature professor for an astronomy PhD) just to check the box without adding more difficulty. I find that pretty useless unless the outside person can, say, help with career goals or something.

My outside people (I have two of them, by the way) are from the Department of Geosciences. One works in a research area related to astrobiology and so ties in well with extra-solar planet research (also ran our astrobiology field excursion to Italy a few years ago…awesome caving trip!). The other teaches about scientific and science writing from a scientist’s perspective, which is related to both additional work I’ve done for the thesis and my future career goals.

Also, don’t add a “token” female professor or other “token” minority professor just to say that your committee wasn’t completely older white men. That’s just insulting to those professors who aren’t being included for their expertise and therefore aren’t being treated equitably. “Tokenism” is just a bad idea all around, ‘kay?

I’m of the opinion that if a committee can’t challenge you and find the boundaries of your knowledge, they aren’t doing their job. That’s because I want my PhD to mean that I’m good enough to have one, and I want the people who tell me that I’m good enough to know what that means. I don’t want any “gimmes” with this.

So…that’s a thesis committee and why they meet. I have six members on my committee, which is two more than I really need for the defense. Their areas of expertise all align with areas I’ve worked on, I’ve written papers with most them or been a student in their class, I’ve gone to all of them for advice at one point or another. I’ve met with them four times since I started graduate research, and they’ve recently agreed that I can defend my dissertation in May.

So…woohoo! They think I’ll be ready! And…oi vey, I have to be ready…deep breaths. Here we go!

FYI, I use to schedule my committee meetings. I like it more than Doodle.


On the Road to a PhD: I won…an award?

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

So…I guess I won an award. Huh. Cool!

Back at the AAS229 meeting in Grapevine, TX about a month ago I presented a poster that summarizes my future thesis chapter on strategies to effectively communicate astronomy. You can see my poster, and come of my commentary, here on a previous blog post. I also, as I usually do, entered my poster into the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award. This means that during your assigned poster presentation day, your poster and your oral poster presentation will be judged by a few volunteers for content knowledge, clarity, and focus. Two-thirds of the possible points are awarded for the content knowledge as presented orally and on the poster, and one-third of the points are awarded for the design and clarity of the oral presentation and poster itself.

This is the third time I’ve entered the Chambliss competition, and mostly I entered my poster as a “why not?” sort of thing, with no real expectation of winning and no real need to win other than personal validation that my focus on astronomy communication was valued by the community.

But…turns out I won one of the six graduate awards given out this year. Woah! That’s…unexpected and awesome and terrifyingly brilliant and relieving and satisfying and super exciting! The email came through last night, and I just sort of stared at it for a minute not really believing that I wasn’t misreading it and then I might have (read: most definitely did) shout a little and do a happy dance.

Granted, it wasn’t quite to the level of my happy dance after the Cubs won the world series a few months ago (but really, what could top that?), but it was up there.

It’s not so much that I won an award, because in all honesty recognition for academic achievements like that make me uncomfortable and self-conscious more than anything else. But after a lot of uncertainty in my mind about my additional “alternative” focus on astronomy communication as part of my graduate education, this type of validation from the astronomy community is certainly soothes away a bit of my uncertainty.

Since the poster was meant to serve as as an outline and “first draft” of that thesis chapter, I guess it’s full steam ahead!

(also, as an added perk, this award comes with an actual medal…neat!)

On the Road to a PhD: Graduation timeline…yikes!

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

So, I’ve known that I intended to graduate at the end of this semester since the end of last summer. I met with my thesis committee (which seems to just keep growing!) and presented them with a timeline of work that I intended to finish up, when I would be able to accomplish that work, a (very) rough outline of my thesis and they said…great!

Well, actually, they said, “This is a very ambitious set of goals in a very tight schedule with not much leeway. If it was anyone else but you, Kim, we’d have concerns. But since it’s you…” As if that wasn’t just a little bit of pressure. But hey, it’s always nice when your committee recognizes that you are a ridiculous overachiever capable of serious multitasking and incredible workloads when you put your mind to it.

So I’ve been working hard the past few months to keep on schedule, which has mostly been successful. A few of my projects have taken longer than expected, but that’s how research usually goes.

Only, I didn’t take into account the fact that Penn State requires an absurd amount of lead time between when you defend your dissertation and when they let you walk at graduation. The Penn State Spring Commencement is at the start of May, and in order to walk in the ceremony (and you know, get your diploma and such) you have to defend your dissertation to your committee two months before that. That’s the beginning of March (or a little over a month from now). Yikes! Seriously Penn State, more than two months before graduation?!? Seriously?!? (sidebar: how many of you read that in a “Grey’s Anatomy” voice? No? Just me then…)

So, I had a hard think a few days ago and tried to take an honest look at what I still needed to do, the time frame in which I had to do it, and how long it would really take to finish all that work. And get a mostly final draft of the thesis. And put together a talk. And prepare for the defense. Whilst simultaneously completing a science writing internship and finding a new job.

I came to the pretty tough realization that I couldn’t get all of that done in a month. For all my multitasking and overachieving abilities, I am only human (no radioactive spiders or Gallifreyan DNA over here, thank you very much) and I have limits. I can’t get all of that done in a month, while maintaining a good quality of work, supporting a husband who is also defending his thesis in a month, and keeping myself in good physical and mental health.

So, after having a good and honest talk with my advisor, I decided to wait to officially graduate in August rather than May. However, I don’t actually want to still be in grad school in August doing graduate work (chas v’shalom!). I want to have a real job doing real work in science communication. And my husband will have graduated by then and hopefully have started a new job as well. And research funding would be an issue throughout the summer.

So, the solution is to finish up all of the work I need to do in order to graduate (i.e. apply to graduate, format my thesis, defend, submit my thesis, sign the forms) by May, move on to my new job, and then come back in August to walk the walk. I’ll still technically be enrolled as a student, but will have everything done and a letter from the University stating that I’m ABG (“all but graduation” in the common parlance). It might be messy, but everything will get done, there won’t be two people in this house both frantically trying to defend in a month, funding will stretch, I won’t go spare trying to handle more than I am able to, and I will still be able to start a new job in May. Seems like a solid plan to me!

Now, I’ve actually got to get my committee together to let them know the new plan. Six professors all in the same place at the same time…oi vey.

On the Road to a PhD Blog Series

Hello all! Thanks for joining me on my Road to a PhD…where I blog in semi-real time about the different stages I’m going through now that I’m officially cleared to graduate this year. It’s a lot like the stages of grief only not as grim and with a (hopefully) happy ending. Anyways, here’s a look at my thoughts and experiences while finishing up all the myriad tasks and responsibilities before getting my PhD. This series is part journal, part catharsis, and part chronicle.

Warning: there may be (read: will be) lots of geeky pop culture references, sarcasm, and Yiddish phrases scattered throughout these. These are my default modes when I’m stressed. You are forewarned.

Disclaimer: all thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog series are my own and do not represent the stances of anyone else. Every grad student’s experience is different, and mine is shaped by both the privileges I hold and the challenges I overcome.

Here are the posts in chronological order:

January 6, 2017 – My AAS DTalk

January 24, 2017 – Graduation timeline…yikes!

January 31, 2017 – I won…an award?

February 13, 2017 – Thesis Committee Meetings

March 4, 2017 – Houston, we have a defense date!

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