Over the years after many conversations with friends and family members, it has been come apparent that only people in academia know what PhD students actually do. I dont think I truly understood what graduate school was like until I was working on my masters at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Everyone knows that for a two or four year program, you take a certain amount of classes and maybe even have some sort of project to complete, or internships (co-op) and then you are done. You complete these tasks and then you get your degree. Of course you also had to pay a lot of money, spend a lot of time and study a lot, but you have a degree!
Now, there is this group of people that love to endure more pain. They think to themselves, “How can I make these college years last forever?” Well, luckily there is already an option, the PhD. Now, similar to undergraduate, you apply to universities/colleges. This time, however you are also looking for a lab to work in. Similar to labs in high school/undergraduate lab courses, you work in the lab.
However, the similarities stop there. You are no longer conducting known experiments in which you are handed the directions. You are now a slower, more methodical macgyver, who comes up with your own directions by reading hundreds of published articles and other peoples PhD dissertations. What is a published article? Well, after working hard in the lab for a year or two, you know have some sort of results. You write these results up into a paper (lengths ranges 5-10), send that off to your advisor/mentors and they send it back with at least 50 comments on what you need to change. Eventually, you submit to a journal, weeks or months later they give you feedback. They assign reviewers to read it and make comments. The fastest turn around time from submission to print is 3 months, longest is years.
Okay, so I am doing research in a lab. Yes. I also had to take a certain amount of classes and then help TA (teaching assistant) undergraduate classes. When do I graduate? Well, the beauty of the PhD is that every advisor can set their own standards. My advisor wants 5 first author publications (please refer to the time it takes to be published). So the classes, TAing, etc all needs to be taken care of as well. The publications allow me to graduate.
I want to acknowledge that this is my experience and all students have different experiences.
The past three years, I was mostly in the lab, collecting data. This year, I will spend most of my days finishing writing my papers, writing my dissertation and applying to Post-Doctoral Fellowships.
For those who want a lifetime career in academia, we then complete a post-doc (2-3 years) of more training. The idea is to become independent from your advisor, learn new skills and then transition into a tenure track faculty role. So, my love of college will continue!
If you have questions or thoughts, please comment below!