Tooling Up Book Club: The Ph.D. Process

When I was finishing my Ph.D. in 1993, there was almost nothing written about how to survive and thrive in graduate school. Today, there are a handful of excellent guides and handbooks--full of the sort of advice that saves time, reduces anxiety, and helps students get where they want to go. I am pleased to report that the latest entrant to this group of books is outstanding. Introducing The Ph.D. Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences.

The Ph.D. Process is the most comprehensive guide to date about graduate school in the sciences. Like Getting What You Came For by Robert Peters, The Ph.D. Process marches through all aspects of the grad school experience, from application through dissertation defense, and includes some excellent topics not covered in other books, such as advice for foreign students. But unlike Peters's book, The Ph.D. Process is more specifically focused on the sciences. In addition, the book includes the voices of graduate students themselves, discussing, and in some cases qualifying, the authors' advice. The combination of authoritative summaries along with anecdotes from students themselves help lend substance to what otherwise might be a daunting litany of do's and don'ts about grad school.

The book is organized in a more or less chronological sequence of major events and issues in the grad school process. Interspersed with these subjects are chapters on more strategic and issues-related subjects such as Networking, The Life of a Grad Student, and Goals. Together the chapters work both to explain how things work and also how to make things work well for you.

The first two chapters deal with the issues of deciding whether or not to go to grad school and how to choose schools and advisors if you do. The authors' advice at the outset is honest: go to grad school ONLY if you are really committed. Eager prospective graduate students should also read the penultimate chapters on Goals and the Job Market which present a sobering and honest look at what today's grad student may be looking forward to in terms of job prospects.

But having given this important caveat, the authors discuss in detail strategies for picking the right school and advisor. The most important advice is to talk with current students. Even if you cannot make a trip out to the department (which, by the way, you really should do no matter what the cost--it's going to end up being 5 to 7 years of your life!), you should at least e-mail some of the students. Students are GREAT! They will tell you all the dirt and can help steer you away from problem advisors. The authors discuss the relative merits of choosing a rising star versus an established professor. Unfortunately, they do not mention the famous parable of the rabbit and his dissertation.

There are some subjects that the authors breeze by perhaps a bit too quickly. Fellowships are an extremely valuable means of both funding your education and gaining prestige and recognition. All prospective grad students should seriously examine the cornucopia of fellowship opportunities that are out there. Even if you feel not quite competitive for these fellowships, they provide you and your recommendors with good practice for your applications. Also, the authors don't emphasize nearly enough the importance of checking out a potential advisor's track record of where his or her former students have gone. This statistic is one of the best predictors of where you may end up by working for the same person: If you really want a job in academia, think hard before selecting an advisor who's past 11 students have all gone off to industry.

The central portion of the book discusses some of the major hurdles of grad school: selecting a project, picking a committee, and defending your proposal. These are fairly straightforward and, in some cases, may be more department specific than the rest of the book. For example, my department did not inflict an oral exam on its students but had a first-year research review instead.

One of the elements that makes this book unique is the frank discussions of strategy and tactics. An entire chapter is devoted to the subject of how you learn in graduate school. Undergraduate students from small schools can be terribly unprepared for how different the learning strategies are in grad school. This chapter provides an excellent discussion not found in other books. The authors also devote an entire chapter to the art of networking. This is a critical subject for young scientists, yet few books cover it in detail. The authors also discuss some important nuts-and-bolts issues such as keeping a good notebook (a critical skill--you are lucky if your advisor teaches you this) and lab etiquette (which seems to be a big issue in the life sciences where laboratories can be a warren of little grad student cubby holes).

The authors can lay it on a bit thick at times, especially in rhapsodizing about the glory days of graduate school. "Grad students have been granted a special favor," begins one paragraph which goes on to end "theirs is a truly privileged world." Right. While the authors do qualify this utopian vision somewhat (drastically so in later chapters) there may be a bit of rosy-hued nostalgia being presented here! Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it discusses the true dynamic range of the graduate school experience: It is truly the best of times and the worst of times.

One of the best chapters is entitled What Should Your Goals Be While in Graduate School? The authors list some good ones:

  • Form a Networking Framework
  • Become Proficient in Some Useful Techniques or Mathematical Skills
  • Make Sure Your Research "Tells a Story"
  • Learn to Write a Grant Proposal
  • Publish Two to Three First-Authored Papers
  • Become a Good Public Speaker
  • Finish Grad School Within a reasonable Amount of Time
  • Develop Street Smarts
  • Secure a Postdoc Position in a Well-Respected Lab

These are all critical skills and issues that grad students must master before they hit the cold waters of post-graduate life. Putting them together in one place serves as a useful reference and a reminder.

The last part of the book discuses some of the challenges facing young scientists in today's job market. The authors take a somewhat traditional tone here, implying that academia is the most desirable avenue for the "best and brightest." Not coincidentally, two are academics themselves. Thus, The Ph.D. Process reveals some of the same biases that are in Peter Feibelan's book A Ph.D. is NOT Enough .

Advice from any mentor is usually biased by the mentor's own experiences. The Ph.D. Process presents excellent advice from the perspective of three former students, two of whom are presently professors. The advice leans toward the traditional, but, presently, grad schools are still adopting a very traditional approach to graduate education. Therefore, I recommend you read The Ph.D. Process along with A Ph.D. is NOT Enough and Getting What You Came For. With these books you'll be far better prepared than I was for success in graduate school.

Once upon a time there was a rabbit who sat outside a large cave, typing away on a word processor. Along came a monkey who, ever curious, stopped to see what on earth this curious rabbit was up to. "Hey, whatcha doing there?" asked the monkey. "I'm writing my dissertation," replied the rabbit. The monkey thought this was the funniest answer in the world and rolled around on the ground howling with laughter and holding his sides. Having nearly exhausted himself with laughter the monkey crawled back to the rabbit. "So, what's your dissertation about?" asked the monkey, still barely able to suppress his giggles. "It's about how rabbits can eat monkeys," replied the rabbit matter-of-factly, still typing away. "Oh yeah?" replied the monkey, "Now how does that work?" "Come into this cave and I'll show you," replied the rabbit. The two entered the cave. A little while later the rabbit emerged holding a thoroughly gnawed money bone and resumed typing. Later that day a wolf ambled past and, spotting the rabbit, decided that he might partake in a late afternoon snack. "Well," said the wolf, "what are we up to my little friend?" "I'm writing my dissertation," replied the rabbit. "I see," said the wolf, with an icy coolness as he crept closer to the rabbit. The rabbit looked briefly over toward the wolf and added, "Yes, it's about how rabbits can eat wolves." The wolf stumbled, lost his predatory gaze and looked up. "Are you daft?" he snorted, "I should think it would be the other way around!" To which the rabbit replied, "Come into this cave and I will show you." So the rabbit and the wolf entered the cave. A short time later the rabbit reemerged, this time clutching a wolf bone, and sat down and resumed typing. Finally a hyena strolled along and, spying the rabbit, trotted over. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't eat you right now," cackled the hyena. "Because," replied the rabbit, still typing, "I am finishing my dissertation." The hyena was utterly unprepared for this response and had to give it several minutes thought. Finally he replied, "What are you writing about?" The rabbit stopped typing and looked up. "It's about how rabbits can eat hyenas. Come into my cave and I'll show you." And the rabbit brought the hyena into the cave and introduced him to his thesis advisor, the lion.

Moral: It does not matter what your thesis title is. It does not matter how ridiculous the subject. All that matters is who your dissertation advisor is.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers