Guest Post: Finishing up the PhD!

This week’s guest post is from the Women in Science (WIS) group in the Integrative Biology department at UC Berkeley. At the beginning of this month, they had a panel discussion on everything you need to know about finishing, filing, etc. Below are the minutes from the panel, with useful advice for everyone.

On filing logistics

There are some aspects of logistics that can take you by surprise. For example, you need to schedule time into your plan to get your committee members’ signature physically. It cannot be a scan.

  • Just be bold and ask them for their travel schedules as they will be more than happy to give you that info and let you schedule the rest.
  • Ask how each committee member wants to receive your chapters! Different committee members may approach your thesis with their own quirks. Try and send chapters during times when they are not too busy traveling.
  • Meet your committee members often, even if it’s individually.
  • Committee members can change quite a bit from your qualifying exam. IB requires 3 signatures, sometimes 4. Some students just have one replacement (drop one QE member in place of their adviser), while some replace half or more of their committee members due to thesis topic relevance.
  • Talk to your committee early on about your chapters.
    • Anecdote: My advisor saved me from writing an entire chapter as he saw it was unnecessary (negative results).
    • Anecdote: Another labmate was able to consolidate the experiment for one entire chapter down to one paragraph after he talked to his advisor.
  • Your committee members will give you feedback, but it’s up to you to chase them for it. Don’t expect them to come to you!
  • It helps if you can give your committee an overview of the progress of each chapter. For instance, you can have each chapter broken down into components such as data collecting, analysis, and writing, and you can have an indication of  progress for each. If you give them an idea of what it will look like at the end, they can advise you more easily.
    • Anecdote: My 1st – 3rd years of grad school, committee meetings tend to be a “this is what I did last year” dump. My 4th – last year of gradschool, my meetings were more along the lines of “this is my timeline to turn this result into a chapter”.
  • Is it worth going on filing fees?
    • Benefits: It helps if you are mid-way done. Say you wanted to finish in the spring, but couldn’t, yet you are pretty sure you can finish half-way through fall semester. In that case it makes sense to go on filing fees in your fall semester so you can save yourself or your advisor having to pay tuition.
    • Drawbacks: On filing fees, you lose other students benefits, such as health insurance, gym membership, or library access
      • If you get your advisor to write a note, they can give you library access.
      • Some departments have policies where students on filing fees get hired in another capacity, such as a Researcher appointment, which gives students back some of these benefits. In these cases, going on filing fees may not save as much money.
    • Important: Once you are on filing fees, you HAVE TO finish that semester, otherwise you will need to re-enroll. That means loads of bureaucracy and paperwork you could have saved yourself – remember that you can submit your thesis while you are still enrolled.

On writing your thesis

  • Writing habits:
    • Get help from your community! Don’t be afraid to ask for a thesis manuscript with the right format from your peers who might be ahead of you in writing.
    • Consider scheduling enforced writing groups. These are a useful way to keep everyone on track.
    • Write EARLY and write often is a rule too easy to ignore. Beating a dead horse here, but 2430528033_73ded5b01e_mwrite early! Even if you write a general introduction, a section, a method, all of it will be useful and give you something to work from. Having published stuff really helps.
    • Anecdote 1: I find it best when I commit to small amounts of time at first. Half an hour for instance, just working on the formatting. Then commit to spend at least half an hour each day.
    • Anecdote 2: I’m different, I find that I need the 2-3 hour block of time. I am not always efficient, of course. I can get 2-3 hours done in an average day, in two separate times of a day
    • Find a location and associate that location with writing your thesis.
  • Formatting matters!
    • Your thesis needs an intro/abstract, a table of contents, and it needs to adhere to many formatting rules set by the university. At UC Berkeley, you can obtain them from the GLOW checklist website.
    • Check out previous people’s theses, but beware that formatting rules can change year to year.
  • Writing software:
    • LateX and BibTeX are word-processing freeware!
    • Scrivener is another good option used by many humanities PhDs.
  • Writing content:
    • The broad intro of your thesis can differ depending on lab/field. Some labs’ students always have the first chapter being a review paper. Some are more general, having 1.5-3 pages of broad intro and broad conclusion.
    • Broadening your thesis topic to encompass all papers that you’ve done is ok – sometimes it becomes a neat process where you can really see it come together as a unified thesis.
    • Discussion chapter takes a while and tends to bog one down.
    • Intro can also take a while – write that last if you don’t already have something.
    • It gets easier after one chapter is done! 

On job hunting while writing/finishing

  • How do you find out about job opportunities?
    • Museums, open positions, community & networking, listervs
    • Knowing people and having those networks really helps!
    • If your community knows you and what you want, they will send you info that they think is relevant.
    • “Cold” emailing someone whose lab work interests you may work as well.
      • Go over their papers, read up on their work, etc.
      • If helps if they know your adviser.
      • Anecdote: I had 12 people read over my email before I sent it, just to be sure it was appropriate and good.
      • Anecdote: I always attached my CV. It makes a good impression, so there isn’t a reason not to.
      • Be sure that your email is concise.
    • “Term professor” is a type of position that is more common in small liberal arts schools. Through the year-to-year renewed contract you get the same benefits as a tenure-track professor, except without tenure track.
  • Timeline can depend on the type of job
    • For academic jobs, applications tend to require longer prep time. You need a teaching statement, research CV, personal CV, example of teaching excellence, supplementary questions, etc. The timeline is further ahead too in that if you apply for it in the fall, you may not start until a year after.
      • Anecdote: I’m interested in community college jobs, but due to the nature of the timeline, I only heard back from under half of the 19 that I applied to. For now, I have a summer teaching job.
    • In contrast, industry jobs tend to require that you start almost as soon as you hear back from them. Basically, immediate start dates are something you should take into account when planning to apply.
      • Anecdote: My SO decided to just focus on finishing the PhD first, *then* apply to jobs when the PhD is done because an industry job would require them to start immediately.
      • Industry jobs use online sites like LinkdIn a lot more than academic ones. Put yourself out there!
  • How much time does it take?
    • It can become distracting. Even if you are done with one task or another, you might still be really hung up thinking about it. Try to compartmentalize and be efficient.
    • Anecdote: I took half a month just to focus on job application and did no writing in that time. It was a switch of pace, but also pretty stressful.
    • Anecdote: You can begin a year earlier, and even suggest to your future postdoc adviser to write a proposal together. This would show commitment and intent. But obviously, don’t do too many at the same time as it does take time.

Thank you to WIS and their panelists for the advice!