Getting a PhD

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Sparky49, May 5, 2014.

  1. Sparky49

    Thread Starter Active Member

    Jul 16, 2011
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    Hi all.

    Something I've been thinking about whlst at uni is what I want to do after I graduate. Yes, I haven't even finished my first year, but preparation and a general plan can't hurt.

    I'm quite interested in following a PhD. However, I'm not sure of the process involved. My understanding was a PhD involved several years of research, to write a thesis. But what exactly is a thesis, when compared to research papers/coursework/etc, especially from EE perspective? I've also heard of portfolio based PhD's, but I'm not quite sure how these work. It is as simple as binding together a bunch of research papers you've written?

    Also, what exams are involved in the PhD process? I'm aware of an entrance exam, but are there exams during the PhD itself? Or is it just research based?

    Many thanks for your time. I wasn't quite sure where to post this, hope here is okay. :)

    Regards,

    Sparky
     
  2. MrChips

    Moderator

    Oct 2, 2009
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    I could have gone on to a PhD in Physics but choose not to. My expectations of what a PhD is worth may be higher than what I have witnessed in reality. I would expect that a candidate for a PhD should have a very good knowledge and understanding of a broad scope in the specified area, e.g. Physics or Electrical Engineering.

    I am not aware of an entrance exam but I know you have to take a "comprehensive exam". Maybe that's the same thing. The exam is expected to contain questions of any aspect within the field of study.

    The candidate is expected to pursue a research topic culminating in producing a thesis followed by an oral defense of the thesis in front of a panel of examiners. The research topic is expected to be cutting edge and unique, i.e. it delves into the forefront of science or technology on a topic that has not be pursued or discovered before. That is one of the purposes of doing research into prior work, examining what has been done before and ensuring that you are uncovering fresh ground.

    Research and writing the thesis may take 3 to 5 years for a PhD.

    Before pursuing a PhD you may choose to get Masters degree. This is not compulsory,

    Others are free to add their own experience and concept of what is a PhD and may correct me if your view differs from mine.
     
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  3. justtrying

    Active Member

    Mar 9, 2011
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    Hi Sparky,

    As having recently spent many years in undergrad and technical school, I agree with Mr. Chips. I have also looked at pursuing an academic career for myself, but have worked in a research lab while finishing my undergrad (in Biology) and have seen the inner workings of that path. My expectations would not be met if I were to pursue it, therefore I am just a tech :)

    I have found out that it is largely a matter of who you know...
     
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  4. Sparky49

    Thread Starter Active Member

    Jul 16, 2011
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    Thanks for the reply guys.

    Say I was interested in researching plasma antennas, would the comp. exam be on plasma dynamics and antenna theory? Or broader yet?
     
  5. Georacer

    Moderator

    Nov 25, 2009
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    I started a PhD this year, so I'll tell you my experience so far.
    Keep in mind that educational institutes all around the world follow different processes and procedures, so your mileage may vary.

    In Greece, there are essentially two kinds of PhDs: The ones that you get paid to carry out, and the ones you aren't. The latter case is free research, at your own terms, at your own time and I won't go into any more detail about it.

    I will talk about the former case, where a professor, in one of the few large universities of the country, has a team of a few post-docs, a few PhD candidates, a few students doing their master's theses and a few students doing their diploma theses, working in one or two labs. I don't think any professor has more than 10-15 people under his command.
    Since professors are permanently appointed, they don't really have to show any work. That means that if a professor is an active researcher, he does it because he wants so, not because he has to. That, in turn, means that he "digs" hunting for projects, pushes for paper publications and runs his labs seriously, like a business.

    I'm doing fixed-wing UAV research on automatic control, in the Mech Eng school, after getting an EE degree. I didn't have to pass any introductory exams, I only had to have my professor introduce me to the board for "hiring". However, since I haven't done a separate master's degree, I have to get 5 courses during the PhD duration, picked from the master's curriculum.

    Officially, the PhD runs for at least 3 years. However, I have started working full time for 6 months before my official announcement as a PhD student. Realistically, no-one gets the title before the 4th year and some may very well reach the 7th.
    The duties of a PhD student include running research projects, sending papers to conferences, reviewing submitted papers, preparing lab exercises and supervising examinations.

    My professor, for better or for worse, evaluates your performance on how many published papers you have under your belt. We're talking 1st name on the paper here and not just any conference. ICRA, IROS, TAC and equivalent ones are the only ones that count. You'll understand what that means eventually, if you go down that path.

    Finally, the lab will be set up in a way so as you will always be busy, with no one to help or guide you day-by-day, with you having to find the answers to your questions on your own. If you love your research subject these things will come naturally to you. If not, you will suffer.

    From what I have heard, here are some differences you will find in universities in other countries.

    In Europe, you'll get your degree in 3 years exactly and you'll go about your way, probably with a set job waiting for you, if you had a good run. There are many good labs out there, so the competition for some chairs may be fierce.

    In the US, things are fierce. Assuming that you won't migrate to the other side of the world to attend a so-so university, if someone applies for the US, he means business. That has driven the competition sky-high, with the Chinese students setting the bar a bit too high for my tastes. Long days of work and fierce competition. Over there, you take courses for the first year and if you don't do so well, they'll give you a master's and send you home. If they like you, then you get to stay.
    However, since research is a serious business over there, the roles are clear cut and you'll see separate people charged with research, programming, board fabrication, instrument operation etc. This can be both good and bad, depending mostly on your mood and tastes.

    However, no matter where you are, you'll have to play a bit of mind games, keep tabs on the lab politics and see people leave with tears and swears.

    To close this post, I admit to working and studying more than I ever have, but I feel like I have found my place in that part of research. Not necessarily in the university as a PhD student, but as a UAV scientist/architect.

    But don't take my word for it, ask as many people as you can and hear their stories.
     
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  6. pwdixon

    Member

    Oct 11, 2012
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    A PhD is a lot of work but mostly it's a matter of maintaining interest and persistence. When I did my PhD in the UK 10 years ago the work involved generating a series of papers, presenting them at conferences then collating those papers into a thesis, culminating in an 8 hour viva. No exams just a very long interview. You really need to be committed to getting the work done and being self driven otherwise you will drop out. I was recommended a book I think it was called "How to Get a PhD" that explained the whole process really well. I think the most important thing I came to realise was that doing a PhD is really lonely work, by definition you should be doing new things that almost no-one will understand, otherwise you won't get a PhD from it anyway. You definitely need to be psychologically tough to get through it.
     
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  7. Sparky49

    Thread Starter Active Member

    Jul 16, 2011
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    Thanks again guys. I'll be sure to look out for that book.

    Lone research doesn't bother me (well, I say that at the moment!). I much prefer the tasks where we are left to do our own thing, rather than in groups, where things can get slowed down/messed up for whatever reason.

    And an 8 hour viva? Wow. :) Does that include a lunch break? I presume the viva is on the topic(s) that you researched?

    And Geo, is the paid research paid by the university or industry? As in, a company sponsors you to do research in a given area.

    As I said, at the moment, a couple of years of self motivated research really appeals to me. I'm even hoping to get a paper sent to the ieee before exam results come out. :p Will have to see how that goes.
     
  8. Georacer

    Moderator

    Nov 25, 2009
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    Exclusively in Greece, companies are absent from educational institutes. Research funds come from the government and the EU.

    Anywhere else, there are company-university cooperations, which allow departments to fund their own research at will, apart from government funds and deals.
     
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  9. DrRich

    New Member

    Apr 21, 2014
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    I have recently come out of the PhD tunnel and about a month back I got a letter from my University titled Dr. That felt so great after 5 years!

    Generally you need three novel ideas to graduate - with at least one being published in a decent journal, supported by a few conference papers - but the more the merrier. More journal papers, the less hassle in the Viva. My Viva lasted about 4 hours, with a 1/2 hour break for lunch. In the Viva you will be expected to know the 100+ papers you referenced and be able to explain how your work is better and novel in comparison.

    In my university you have one year to prove your research worth. If you did not do anything of real note, you would be given a masters or a diploma and sent on your way (as Georacer mentions). My university now does yearly progress checks, but I was just old enough to escape that.

    My process of PhD has been: Read papers -> Figure out other ways to do what the papers have done, how to improve the techniques etc -> Try it out in simulation (read Matlab) -> design PCB's,write C/VHDL -> perform a real experiment -> Compare to what you expect and other papers. If good, publish, move on. Else, try to improve or call it a dead loss and move on anyway. Hopefully you can see why getting those 3 novel ideas can take time now :p.

    Pwdixon is correct. It is a lonely road. I lost track of how many times I have came home from University at 3am or later, with dinner consisting of a fish and chip (and perhaps a pickled egg) eaten in the research office with a can of Coca Cola. Do not worry, I got one of my five a day with tomato sauce.

    No TA's to help you out here. If you are having experimental problems, it is generally up to you solve it. If you have an EXCEPTIONAL professor, they will come into the lab and guide you on what they can.

    The plus sides are no classes, examinations and you can take the work (within limits) in any direction you see fit. It is rather disconcerting that everyone you teach/help out with in undergraduate labs stays within the same age range (19-22), but you continue to age.

    Anyway, I have enjoyed it and have decided to continue on as a RA.
     
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  10. KL7AJ

    AAC Fanatic!

    Nov 4, 2008
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    My experience in research was the best of both worlds. I had no intention of getting a PhD;,. I was a "hired gun" electrical engineer in the UCLA plasma lab. I got to work with the smartest folks in the world, fabricating instrumentation and plasma hardware, without any pressure to perform...other than making some PhD candidates happy. I learned a whole bunch, and got to ply my practical engineering trades...without wracking my brain with too much exotic math. It was the best time in my life....but after HIPAS Observatory was decommissioned, it will never be again.

    Eric
     
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  11. atferrari

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    I presume that if you do right, there will be a certain point when you will be knowing more than him because you digged deper, right?
     
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  12. GopherT

    AAC Fanatic!

    Nov 23, 2012
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    I did my PhD in chemistry 20 years ago and, surprisingly, there were three classes of people..

    - hardcore scientists
    - non-majors transferring into chemistry (me)
    - mid-quality chemistry students who could not get a reasonable job with their mediocre grades in chemistry (usually taken as masters students with potential to move up)

    Many of the poor students excelled in grad school because to teaching stipends that allowed them to fund their studies instead of working three different part-time jobs off campus like they did as undergrads.

    some schools have entrance exams to make sure you know the basics and make you take remedial classes (repeat under grad classes) if you fail.

    The who research thing should help you find a focus of expertise but it is not your career. The goal of grad school (from my point of view and, conveniently, from my company's point of view) is to teach people to identify and solve interesting problems.

    Rumor is that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That is about 5 years of 8 hours per day and 5 days per week. That is about a PhD with proper supervision and support. That, quite simply is a PhD.

    When you start, you get to pick the professor and the project the professor has to offer or you can propose your own. If you want to study plasma antennas, then you have to be sure that the school you pick has a professor or group of professors that are interested in the topic - design, building and testing transmit and receive, ...

    Eventually, everyone finds their niche. Whether a broad, multidisciplinary project or simply finding a new method or more accurate method way or faster method to measure X.

    Pass the classes, teach the physics labs, do the research, attend interesting lectures, write the thesis, look for a job, complain about the company. That's how it works.

    Cheers
     
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  13. WBahn

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    Mar 31, 2012
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    As others have noted, the road to a PhD varies all over the place -- even within different departments in the same graduate school!

    For me (completed in 2012, so fairly recent), the basic road was as follows:

    1) Complete the initial course work.
    2) Take the comprehensive exam.
    3) Take more coursework and prepare dissertation proposal.
    4) Present dissertation proposal to dissertation committee.
    5) Perform the bulk of the research (though much of mine was finished before the proposal). This usually involves submitting parts to various conferences and journals and presenting at them.
    6) Write the dissertation and submit to the committee.
    7) Defend the dissertation before the committee (in a public venue).
    8) Perform any requested revisions.
    9) Submit final dissertation for publication.

    Many schools here follow a largely similar route but call the different parts different things.

    The comprehensive exam (called the preliminary exam at many schools) covered mostly undergraduate topics at roughly the senior level -- though the expectations were that you would do well above average work on the problems. Like most schools, mine had a two-strike rule -- fail the exam twice and you were eliminated from the program. Many students (about half) failed the exam on the first attempt. Few failed it a second time (but some did).

    The dissertation proposal is perhaps the big stumbling block for many. You are expected to present a clear and convincing plan that demonstrates that you have a specific understanding of what you are trying to research, that you have truly done a literature search adequate to establish that your work will extend the body of knowledge in a meaningful way, and that you have a realistic and well thought out plan of attack. If your committee rubber stamps this, you are in trouble -- you need them to rake you over the coals a bit so that you really do have your ducks in a row. I was fortunate in that I had been doing research on my topic for a couple of years in my paid position and so my proposal was almost enough to count as my dissertation and there was very little coal raking. But I was also in a somewhat precarious position because my advisor (as well as all but one member of my committee) really didn't understand the work I was doing (and which was being performed at the Air Force Academy, to boot). So my committee couldn't really guide me in my work or evaluate whether my plan was viable or not. But it was very reassuring when one of my committee members, who had been openly skeptical that my entire topic was even physically possible, stated at the end of the proposal defense that I had convinced him that my topic was not only physically possible, but that he was confident I had a viable plan to realize it.

    If you have a good advisor, the dissertation defense should be little more than a formality. The reason is simple -- your advisor won't sign off on you defending until you and your dissertation are ready. Even though my advisor wasn't in a position to really get into the nitty-gritty of the technical aspects of my work -- but he liked what he saw and was comfortable with the technical expertise of my colleague I was working with and who was also on the committee -- he did a fabulous job of acting as a nitpicky editor on format, style, and grammar.

    Possibly the biggest problem that defenders have is not really knowing the fine details of what they have done. Sometimes it is because they were too heavily supervised and were little more than lab assistants doing what their advisor told them to do. Sometimes it is because they moved too quickly from A to B to C in their work and never really gained an in-depth, comprehensive understanding of what they did, particularly the theoretical underpinnings (more common for an applied research topic typical of an EE PhD than for something like a physics PhD). Sometimes it's just because they have a hard time keeping the details straight in their head and drawing upon that knowledge on the fly.

    I was in a rather unique situation in that my advisor (as well as all but one member of my committee) really didn't understand the work I was doing (and which was being performed at the Air Force Academy, to boot). So my committee couldn't really guide me in my work, but my advisor did a fabulous job of acting as a nitpicky editor on format, style, and grammar.

    Again, if your advisor has done a good job of vetting your dissertation, including style and grammar, then the revisions shouldn't be a big deal. I did mine in less than a week. But sometimes the committee is sufficiently unimpressed that the "revisions" amount to a major rework of the dissertation possibly involving significant additional research -- it's a "fail" in all but name -- and you end up with a year or so more work to do.

    One thing that no one has mentioned is that getting a PhD is as limiting as it is enabling. Many employers are not interested in someone with a PhD because they are viewed as people with a very narrow focus on a very specific topic. Employers that are interesting in someone with a PhD often want someone whose narrow focus matches exactly the narrow focus they want someone for. So you might give some thought as to just what your aspirations are regarding what you want to do after the PhD and then do some, well, research, into whether attaining those aspirations will be helped or hindered by a PhD.
     
    Last edited: May 6, 2014
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  14. alfacliff

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    Dec 13, 2013
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    A friend of mine has 5 phD's. he dosnt act strange like they are portrayed in the movies and tv.
     
  15. GopherT

    AAC Fanatic!

    Nov 23, 2012
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    If you have a PhD, I don't view your friend's situation as being unusual. If you don't then that man is unusual. It is all perspective. On the other hand, 95% of the people I deal with are strange!
     
  16. WBahn

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    Mar 31, 2012
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    The movies and TV used to overdo every stereotype, be it blondes, women, blacks, whites, jocks, nerds, you name it. Today there are really only three groups (I may have missed one or two) that it is still safe for them to play the stereotype game on and so they seem to have concentrated the same amount of total effort onto just those three -- smart people, fat people, and white males (particularly southern white males).
     
  17. PackratKing

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    Jul 13, 2008
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    Building a fence ?? :D:rolleyes:
     
  18. pwdixon

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    Oct 11, 2012
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    That must be an American joke, it made no sense to me.

    And the guy who says he has 5 PhDs must either have never done a days work in his life (and be incredibly rich) or doesn't actually even have one PhD. Had a salesman come for a job interview once, said he had 3 degrees, we called the university they'd never heard of him. I the guy had said he had one degree we probably wouldn't have even bothered to call the university at all, he didn't get the job.
     
  19. atferrari

    AAC Fanatic!

    Jan 6, 2004
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    There is a huge variety of combinations and possibilities. I it all depends of how you define "work". Many definitions are possible and all valid.

    As long as someones pays for it...
     
  20. PackratKing

    Well-Known Member

    Jul 13, 2008
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    \
    I got a couple of Post Hole Diggers myself...:D:D { Gotcha !! }
     
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