What’s In A PhD? A Basic Overview of Graduate School in STEM

What exactly does it mean to obtain a PhD? What is required, and what does the process look like? Maybe your relative or friend just said they’re going to graduate school, you’re struggling to understand all the strange nuances of academia. Or maybe you’re a PhD student who’s constantly trying to explain all of this to your curious friends and family. This article will provide a brief overview of PhD programs, with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), to help everyone understand the wonderful strangeness that is a PhD.

What exactly is a PhD?

A PhD officially stands for “Doctor of Philosphy,” a term originating from ancient Greece when science and philosophy were considered overlapping fields. Nowadays, a PhD designates that an individual is a top-tier expert in their chosen field. People who have earned a PhD get to use the title “Dr.” It is important to distinguish a PhD from an MD. An MD is a Medical Degree and allows an individual to practice medicine as a doctor. In contrast, a PhD-holder cannot practice medicine; they are experts in academic research, rather than clinical treatment.

How long does a PhD take?

In Europe, most PhD programs last three to four years. In the U.S., five to six years is more typical. Many people are surprised by how long a PhD takes! After all, they’ve already spent at least four years on a Bachelor’s degree, and maybe a Master’s too, and now they’re signing up for even more yearsof education. This just shows how prestigious a PhD really is. It designates that you have spent many years of research to develop deep expertise in your field.

What is the difference between a PhD and a Master’s degree?

Most Master’s degree programs last one or two years. Typically, a Master’s program places greater emphasis on coursework than a PhD program would, though sometimes a Master’s degree may require a small research project culminating in a thesis. Additionally, most Master’s programs are unfunded and require that students pay tuition, whereas most PhD programs are funded (see next section). In some cases, students have to earn a Master’s degree prior to enrolling in a PhD program. In other cases, they can go straight into a PhD program out of undergrad. This depends on the field of STEM, as different disciplines have different requirements for PhD entry.

Are PhD students paid?

In STEM fields, yes, though the amout can vary greatly. In nearly all cases, PhD students receive a tuition waver and do not have to pay for any of their coursework. On top of this, PhD students are paid a modest stipend. This stipend is to compensate the student for their work in the research lab, which is truly a full-time job. In some cases, the stipend may not be enough to cover all living expenses, so the student will have to take out a loan or work a part-time job. It is also common for PhD students to work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) during a portion of their program in order to earn a higher stipend.

Do PhD students just take classes?

It is a very common misconception that PhD students just spend their time taking lots of classes. Classes are actually a very minor aspect of PhD programs and a much greater emphasis is placed on research. In fact, most PhD students finish up all their required classes within their first or second year of the program. They’ll also be working in a research lab part-time or full-time during this period. After they have finished their classes, they will spend the remaining years of their PhD working full-time in their lab. In many cases, PhD students will work long hours including weekends and evenings.

Do PhD students get the summers off?

Since most PhD students finish up their classes within the first couple of years, the concept of summer break doesn’t really exist for them, and they just continue working in their lab as normal over the summer. There also a few fields where it’s common for students to go intern at a company during the summers, though this is less common.

How do PhD students choose a lab?

This depends on the specific program. In some cases, the student will contact individual professors while applying to the graduate program based on an interest in their research. If the professor accepts them, the student will enroll and start working in that lab immediately. In other progarms, students complete “research rotations” during the first year of their PhD, where they spend anywhere from four to sixteen weeks completing a small research project in a lab. This essentially a trial period; it’s a chance for the student to see if they like the lab, and also for the professor to decide if they want to accept the student. Students may complete anywhere from two to six rotations before joining a lab.

Are PhD students considered scientists?

Depends who you ask! There is no standard definition of a scientist. Some people think you need to have completed a PhD and started your own lab to be considered a scientist. Personally, I think that a scientist is anyone who uses the scientific method to make new discoveries. Graduate students would certainly qualify as scientists under that definition.

What are the requirements for a PhD student to graduate?

If you ask a PhD student when they’re going to graduate, you might receive an annoyed response. This is because unlike other degree programs, the requirements to graduate from a PhD program are very vague, so their exact graduation date is often impossible to predict very far in advance. Essentially, a PhD student can graduate when their thesis committee determines they have made a sufficient contribution toward advancing research in their field. What exactly constitutes a “sufficient contribution” is up to the committee’s discretion; sometimes a scientific publication is required, sometimes the process is more wholestic. Once the committee has given approval, the student must write a dissertation that summarizes all of their research findings during their time in the program. This dissertation is a massive undertaking and may be hundreds of pages long. Additionally, the student must present an oral defense of their dissertation.

What happens after finishing a PhD?

There are lots of options! If a PhD graduate wants to get a job as a university professor, they will typically need to complete a “postdoc.” This means they will work full-time in a research lab (usually a different lab from where they earned their PhD) for anywhere from one to six years. A postdoc allows you to enhance your qualifications by publishing lots of scientific papers and establishing yourself as an independent scientist before applying for professor positions. Some people will complete two postdocs in order to get even more experience. However, there are many other paths besides becoming a professor. Some graduates will go work for a company. Sometimes they will become science communicators. They may even go into politics or law. It all depends on the interests and goals each PhD graduate.

1 thought on “What’s In A PhD? A Basic Overview of Graduate School in STEM

  1. Nancy

    This is a good review, as I didn’t originally understand how you went from undergraduate degree to PhD. Very cool that tuition is paid for and a stipend, but I’m sure you work your butt off to complete your lab work and classes. Nice work!



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