Here at Gradifying we like to highlight the diversity of experiences in graduate school. We did just that over the past month in our “day in the life of” series. It was such a hit that we decided to do it again – except this time we want to describe the ‘process’ for each of our degrees.
I will get the ball rolling by talking about 6 main topics that are important in many graduate programs but especially in Biology: the scope of the program, courses, comps, publishing, teaching and staying on track.
The degree itself- Students in Biology often think of their degree timelines in terms of experiments, or field seasons (like I do). A Master’s degree sees a student running one long experiment (maybe a year) or many shorter ones, or having one (ish) field season. A PhD sees experiments that run (2-3 years) or many, many, many shorter ones and 2 (or 3 in my case) field seasons. The vast majority, if not all graduate degrees in Biology are research-based.
Courses – As a Master’s student, you are required to take 4 courses, often one that is right up your alley (often taught by your Supervisor) and then 3 others. The Biology department has 2 very clear distinctions which include: EEB (Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour), CIB (Cell, Molecular & Integrative Biology) and as such a lot of the courses offered are very broad and include things like Communication Skills, Contemporary Issues in Biology, Introductory – Advanced Stats Modules, etc. One of the coolest courses I took was Communication Skills where we learned to write properly, created blogs and websites, and did practice conference talks.
Comps – I just did my comps. In fact, it was 5 weeks to date that I completed them. In Biology, it is suggested that you complete your comps in the first 6 months of the program, but that’s rarely done. I was at the 1.5 year point when I did mine. The process is pretty straight forward. You write a 6 page proposal, submit it two weeks in advance of the exam, and then are given a 2-3 hour oral exam re: your proposal and any topics related to that. It was not the best experience of my life, but I don’t think the exam is designed to be the time of your life.
Publishing – There actually aren’t really any ‘expectations’ per se. It is expected that part of a PhD be publishable, but not necessarily for a Master’s degree. That being said, I think it’s always the aim for the research to be publishable but sometimes, projects just don’t work out, you get scooped by another lab, or the results just aren’t as interesting as you had hoped. I have a personal goal to publish at least a handful of papers before the end of my PhD. The one nice thing is that you can now submit a thesis in ‘manuscript style’ which not only keeps you on top of your research as you go, but also is a great way to get ahead while you’re still actually in school. No more spending months (or years) after your defense writing up manuscripts!
Teaching – Rarely, if ever, do students get the chance to teach their own course, as an instructor or teaching fellow, in our department. The Biology department being one of the larger departments, especially for Undergrads, we do however get a lot of experience as TA’s and we do get a say in what courses we TA (you get to choose your top 5 courses). I have been a TA for several courses (mostly 300 level courses) over my time as a grad student and always enjoyed it. A lot of the TA ships in our department are marking based, but there are also lots of courses where you get to teach a weekly tutorial or run a weekly lab experiment or even go on neat field trips to QUBS or local conservation areas.
Staying on track – Every graduate student in our department is required to have at least one “committee meeting” every year. This is to ensure that students projects aren’t getting out of hand (it’s easy for you and your supervisor to get lost in an impossible or way too big project [guilty as charged]), and to address any concerns about the project or get advice on certain things from your committee members.
While no two students in Biology have identical experiences going through the motions of grad school, this is a general look into what is involved in getting a graduate degree in Biology (you can trust me, I already have one…. and maybe one day…I’ll have two)!