As a Ph.D. student that is about halfway through my fifth year in the in the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences program, I started to understand the “beginning of the end” feeling about six months ago.
When you tell someone that you’re a first-year Ph.D. student, you’re looked at as one of the babies. You’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, rotating through different labs trying to figure out where you will call “home” for the next few years. As you move on to become a second- and third-year, you start teaching, worrying about your candidacy and comprehensive exams, and of course learning firsthand all of the things that can go wrong during any given experiment. You then get to your fourth-year where you’re really focusing on your research, maybe still doing some teaching. But then once you start saying “Oh, I’m a fifth year!” or anything after that, you start to get the response: “You should be finishing up soon then, right?”
This is how I knew I was at the beginning of the end.
I recall being a first- and second-year student and looking up to the senior graduate students in my lab and the labs around me who were defending, graduating, and getting jobs, and thinking, “Wow, that seems so far away for me.” And yet here I am, a fifth-year, looking back on graduate school wondering where all the time went.
I’m not going to lie, getting closer to the end of graduate school is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting for the obvious reasons of earning my Ph.D., getting a job, etc., but also terrifying because the end of your Ph.D. is hardly a walk in the park.
So, for my fellow senior graduate students, I thought I would write a series of advice on finishing up your Ph.D. I’m in the process of experiencing a lot of these things right now, so while I can offer some of my own advice, some of these I am just now learning myself. Therefore, I also asked for some advice from friends who have already defended and graduated.
With this, I begin Part 1 of 5 in The Beginning of the End: Meet with your thesis committee.
If you’re one of those students who doesn’t meet with their thesis committee regularly, whether that be formally or informally, then I highly suggest you change that.
Your thesis committee is made up of 4-5 faculty members that you and your adviser felt would best guide you through the process of earning a Ph.D., and you should be utilizing them more than just for your comprehensive exam and your thesis defense. That doesn’t mean that you have to schedule a formal meeting every six months. Students are encouraged to go talk to members of their thesis committee individually, whether that be to discuss with them results/interpretations from an experiment that he/she might be an expert on or just to give them an update of what you’ve been up to.
You and your adviser should ultimately decide together when to have a committee meeting, but if you haven’t talked to your committee in over two years, then it would be a good idea to schedule a formal meeting. Some helpful advice from Liron Bendor, a recent graduate of the Genetics Ph.D. program, was to meet with your thesis committee as often as possible so that formal meetings are more relaxed and feel less like you are re-living your comprehensive exam.
When you and your adviser have decided that you are getting close to being ready to defend, you should schedule a formal thesis committee meeting 6-12 months before you want to have your defense. Remember that faculty members have busy schedules, and just getting 4-5 of them to all be available at the same time can be a struggle, so schedule that as soon as possible as it may take a few tries to find a time they can all agree on.
Whenever you have a thesis committee meeting, generally the first thing they will ask you is what you are hoping to get out of that meeting. If it’s just to check in and update them, tell them. But if you want to discuss a timeline of finishing up, be straightforward about that from the beginning and HAVE A PLAN. Of course, be sure to discuss this plan with your adviser before the committee meeting so that you are both on the same page. I myself had this meeting with my thesis committee last November, and I did the following:
- Went over my projects and the different research questions I had been working on
- Discussed overall conclusions from my results
- Explained what experiments/questions are still remaining (that I plan to address)
- Gave them a timeline of when I planned to submit papers, finish experiments, and start writing my thesis
While I had been meeting with some of my committee members individually on an informal basis, having this formal meeting with them all together really helped me to narrow down my timeline and prioritize what experiments I needed to complete. It also helped me to realize what a realistic timeline actually looked like. This is obviously the first time going through the process of finishing a Ph.D. for any of us, but for your committee members, they have not only gone through this process themselves as a student but also with countless other graduate students, so they have a pretty good idea of how timelines should look.
As is true with most things in life, having a plan for what I need to do and when I need to do it by has made things a little less stressful.
Stay tuned for The Beginning of the End: Part 2 – Drafting a thesis outline, organizing references, and communicating with your adviser about expectations!