Thursday, June 20, 2013

What it Means to Earn an Engineering PhD Degree

In my experience, many people outside of academia do not understand what it means to earn an engineering PhD degree. I believe this is because many people have not gone through the process of earning a PhD degree. There is nothing wrong with this because a PhD degree takes four to five (or more) years of commitment to hard work, long hours, a lot of stress, and often low pay. In this post, with an accompanying vlog, I explain what it means to earn the PhD degree.

As I pointed out in the video, an engineering PhD degree primarily focuses on graduate level engineering research. Unlike a Bachelor degree, the PhD degree is therefore less loosely defined because each PhD student do different kinds of research. There are some well defined requirements to the PhD degree, such as:
  • Graduate level courses related to your research
  • Required Teaching Assistant (TA) positions
  • Qualifier exams to show that you can do quality research (MUST PASS OR ELSE!)
  • Thesis proposal or prospectus
  • Thesis on the PhD student's research
  • Dissertation (i.e. defend the thesis during a long presentation)
There is one question that PhD students really don't like to be asked, but people ask us anyway: When will you finish your PhD? Please understand that it's not that we don't like people asking us questions. It's that we really don't know the answer ourselves, and it becomes our nature to be experts in what we do. It just throws us off guard when someone asks a question that we don't know how to answer.

The reason that PhD students don't know when exactly they'll graduate is that the decision is not based on a clearly defined set of requirements. PhD students graduate when they've successfully defended their thesis in dissertations. However, it's really up to the PhD advisor and the thesis committee members to decide when PhD students are ready to defend their thesis. Because each thesis committee is different, it's impossible to predict how much effort a PhD student will need to put into writing a thesis before the committee feels the thesis is ready to be defended. The PhD student regularly communicates with his/her committee members and gives them updates on his/her research. Now, the committee members can like the research that the PhD student has done so for, or they can ask the student to redo the research or do more research.

In my case, I hope to be done in a year because that's how long my PhD advisor believes it will take me to finish my research, write my thesis, prepare my dissertation, and defend my thesis in the dissertation. This could all change as I write my thesis. I hope not because I really want to finish by this time next year.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University

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