5 Signs You’re Ready to Earn that Ph.D.

confused5. No one in your family bothers to ask you what you’re studying anymore.

The longer you spend in a Ph.D. program the more opportunities your family has to ask you what you’re doing in school. No doubt, you’ve spent the first couple years of graduate school going to family functions and trying to explain to your grandma what a molecule is. She will eventually come up with an explanation of what you are doing that she can share with her friends. Her description of your work may or may not be correct, but she’s not going to bother trying to understand it anymore. “Good for your honey, you’re so smart!”

4.  Your former life as a bartender or grocery store clerk starts to sound really appealing.

Don’t get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for bartenders and grocery store clerks. They work just as hard as anyone else and their jobs require skill.  It’s just that when you have invested years in a higher education program because you set different career goals, it’s best to keep looking ahead. Somewhere in the middle of the coursework, long hours, and confusing results, you remember back to the days when you were working through college or those summer jobs in high school. You remember that people were rude to you back then, but at least they were only rude during a 40 hour work week. You remember that you used to have hobbies and maybe even a social life! Never fear, once you complete your degree and move on to the next phase, you will start to settle back into a good life groove again.

3. You realize there really are no stupid questions.

Instructors often tell students to ask when they have a question because if they are wondering about something, most likely there is someone else in the room with the same question. When you enter grad school, you enter the realm of the unknown. All of your academic life you have been learning from textbooks and teachers summarizing concepts. In grad school, you make the transition from textbooks to journal articles. It’s difficult to accept that no one really knows the answers to the questions you’re asking. Sure, professors and post docs around your probably have their own theories and preferred experimental methods, but don’t forget that nothing can ever really be proven. At the beginning of a graduate program, you may struggle to find the right question to ask because you don’t want people to think you’re stupid. The sooner you get over that, the sooner you can get on with doing the real science!  It’s always best to try to find an answer on your own through research, but you will learn how much time it makes sense to spend searching for answers before you start talking to people around you.  Discussing and debating these questions with others is one of the best ways to improve your scientific reasoning.

2. You feel like a complete and utter failure in life.

Considering my own experience and the experience of a number of Ph.D. students I have interacted with over the years, this is a common pattern I’ve observed. There comes a time toward the end of a Ph.D. program, many times just before or at the beginning of thesis writing, where it seems like you can never possibly finish this degree. You thought you were smart enough and you have worked really, really hard, but you just feel like there have been so many failures throughout the process that there is no possible way you could ever be worthy of the Ph.D. You’ve been working so hard and so many long hours that you may feel like what you used to be good at in your personal life isn’t even good any more. Maybe you’re 6 years in and only have 6 months left to go. If, at this point, it seems like there is no possible way that your data will cooperate, that your committee members will respect you, or that you can stomach one more inconclusive western blot; if at this point, you want to quit, you are ready!  A career in science involves a lifetime of what some may consider failures. If you can realize that these perceived failures are actually what helps you learn where to direct your experimental studies, you are ready!

question dice1.  You can stand your ground when debating with committee members.

After years of presenting data to your committee and hearing them tear your work apart, you finally realize the truth: at this point, you are the expert in the room in your area of research! No one has spent more time with that particular research question, no one has crunched the numbers in more ways, and no one has spent as many hours agonizing about what it all means. One committee member asks you with contempt why you did your experiment that way. You explain that you did it the way they suggested the first time and break down all the flaws you discovered in the process. Uninterrupted, you continue with explaining the rationale for doing it that way and the relevant results you received in the process.  Another committee member rips apart your interpretation of the results, likely based on some of their own research. Unphased, citations of recent articles begin to roll off your lips. You compare and contrast those studies with the results the committee member cited, and you stand by your interpretation with no doubt (at least no doubt that they will be able to detect, though you may be shaking in your boots!).  Towards the end of the committee meeting you realize that you know this stuff, you can debate and stand your ground with other academics, and your results may not always agree with others, but you can explain them, accept criticism, and learn what makes sense to implement in future experiments.  You realize what a rush it is to confidently discuss your science and you start to remember why you love science and why you chose to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place. Congratulations! You have learned what a life as a scientist is really about. You are ready to write and defend your thesis.

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

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