I confess I am rather reluctant to share posts when it comes to tell about my daily life at work…but that’s only because I don’t think it’s so interesting. Besides, it is science. And as I am not a science communicator -you know, one of those who can explain about genetic drifts and neural networks as if they were talking cake baking- you convene that trying to convey complex concepts via a simple message is just not happening.
I once tried to explain what it is that people like me -bioinformaticians- do, with little success IMO (here).
I have been working in the life sciences field for over a decade now, doing research on human and other species genomes, trying to understand what they are made of and what all those parts do. Some 5 years ago, I embarked on a new adventure: a PhD while continuing working as a researcher. I have not mentioned much of it, neither have I elucidated its highs and its lows, maybe except for in this post.
The place where I work is a research institute. We have a nice (-ish) campus in a crappy industrial area of town. In the campus there is a graduate school for students to learn the basics of life sciences. Now, this graduate school offers PhD programs to workers: it gives the possibility to employees in my research institute seeking education and career advancement to obtain a PhD degree while working full time. The thing is called “Paper Doctor”, meaning the pursuit (claim, kind of) of a doctoral degree by publication of scientific work.
The advantages of such an option are several: one can keep working full time (earning a full salary), no university fees have to be paid, no courses to be taken. Sounds the perfect deal, right?
The requirements to apply for joining such a program, however, are rather strict: the applicant must be a published first author of THREE scientific articles. All articles must be already accepted for publication or there’s not application procedure. This means that if anyone wants to think about getting a PhD degree this way, it may well be 5 to 10 years, depending on projects, luck, supervision and such. And that’s just to be eligible to apply for doctoral degree. After that there are exams, and thesis and the whole shebang.
Now, five years after I decided to undertake that path, I am thankful for whatever and whomever made me go through it, of course, but…I will not do it again could I go back.
In a nutshell, my experience was not like walking through a flowery meadow, but I am sure ALL other PhD students did, do and will share the same feeling.
Initially, requirements for course PhD student and external PhD applicants were same, that is publication of ONE scientific article. It all sounded indeed very doable. I was already working on a project that could be used just for that purpose, so why not. Too bad that the paper took 6 rejections, three years and one nervous breakdown till publication. I did consider quitting, and honestly I don’t know what made me continue.
Meanwhile, the university well thought to modify the requirements, so that THREE published articles were needed, while course students still stick to one. And it’s not just ANY three publications: they have to be original research. That really bummed me, because by then I could add one more publication to my growing list. Only, it wasn’t original research.
Back then they said it would only take me max 2 years to finish the program…On the fourth year, after putting myself together and changing projects three times, I was finally granted the possibility to work on two projects I liked and knew I could finish in record time. The planets seemed to have aligned eventually, because within the year not only I completed what I set out to complete, but increased my published works count by 4, reaching double the minimum papers required.
The fun, though, had just started. I mean, it was not fun:
-It was not clear whether I needed to prepare a thesis, but I should write some consistent story that links my publications anyway to evaluate the level of English proficiency. Apparently writing all those papers was not enough. In the end I didn’t have to, because, eh, those rules were for the “new” paper doctor application but were “old” rules….sorry for the confusion rah rah rah. Yeah, paperwork level: Japan.
-It was not clear whether I had to defend all the publications I submitted for the application. This because it was still not clear whether that “thesis” happened at all. In the end I had to pick one out of those publications and stick to it for all the rounds of examination and final defense.
-It was not clear whether I was done. I eventually defended, yes, but I didn’t know the decision right at that moment. Guess what: I had to take a written test (“academic proficiency”) that was forgotten until the last moment. After that I still had to wait for a final official response until all professors discussed all applicants (in-course and external).
All the steps from PhD degree application to completion took about 6 months. In the end I was spared the thesis writing part, as, in fact, I do not have one: my PhD thesis is the printout of the paper publication I used for my exam. I guess all other phD students will hate me, as I know how tough is to put those 100-300 pages together, depending on degree.
Still, while I did not yet know what the latest rules were, I did write about 50 pages, more or less in one go, summarising all my works and putting them into perspective. All that will be only for my own sake (or my family’s sake more likely) I guess.
I did not really celebrate the graduation…First, I didn’t have the satisfaction of saying “I’m done” after the defence (which, BTW, it usually is the LAST step), so I could not sit down and relax. Second there was no graduation ceremony for me, so I didn’t have the feeling of closure. Third, by the time I was officially declared doctor (no, not dead but was close) so much time had passed that the realisation I had accomplished something simply wore off.
Wait. I actually did organise a small party at work, just to give bosses and colleagues a reason to have a drink. One month after my defence. Go figure.
But hey I can be addressed to as “Doctor” now.
End of ordeal: March 2018.
End of ordeal: March 2018.
With the super duper fantastic supervisor and strongest supporter