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What is an engineering PhD?

Sorry I have fallen way off of schedule. Since my last posting, my husband defended and graduated with his PhD, and we visited out new city and bought our first house. So it’s been extremely exciting and hectic.

But I promised to write about what a PhD is, and so I shall. During  our seven years of graduate study, I’ve encountered a lot of confusion about what a PhD in science and engineering is. Getting a PhD is really really different from other forms of graduate education, such as law, business, and medical school. A PhD in fields like English can vary some from the science experience I describe here, but pursuing a PhD in English is more similar to pursuing a PhD in Physics than it is to law school.

Why you never ask a PhD student when they will graduate

Law school takes 3 years. Med school takes 4 years. A PhD takes ???? years. In science and engineering, it takes about 4-7 years, depending upon whether you go in with a masters, how hard you work, who your advisor is, and luck. Very little of the timing is directly within your control.

When you start with your bachelor’s degree, the first year focuses mostly on classes, the second year is a balance between classes and research, and most of the time after the second year is totally devoted to research. (A student starting with a master’s degree gets to skip most of the classwork.) In science and engineering, you might TA (teaching assist) for a semester or two. In other fields like Spanish and English, you might teach every semester. For them, this is often a good thing since teaching comprises a lot of their post-graduate opportunities. Teaching also pays the bills.

There are three big hurdles in grad school: qualifying exams, proposing your dissertation, and finishing your dissertation. Qualifying exams vary by school and department. If you fail your qualifiers, you won’t get your PhD. Many people who fail their qualifiers leave with a masters. Some departments have terribly difficult qualifiers, others don’t.

Your dissertation tells the story of your research. It describes experimental and mathematical techniques, the state of the field, shows results, and talks about future research possibilities. A dissertation is typically 100-300 pages, depending upon your field. You and your advisor work together to develop a central narrative to your dissertation. A PhD student must propose this avenue of exploration to their proposal committee, a panel of five professors, in a formal presentation. The professors give their feedback and criticisms on the proposed work. They may reject the proposal.

A PhD student graduates when they successfully defend their dissertation. But typically it’s writing the dissertation that is the hardest part after a successful proposal. It takes a long time to write 200 pages, and your advisor will expect a lot of things out of the document. You may also be expected to publish peer-reviewed papers. You can incorporate these papers into your dissertation, but the papers alone don’t count toward the dissertation directly. Papers are even harder to write than dissertation chapters. Papers may involve collaborations with researchers on other continents with other native languages and time zones.

All of the above is why a PhD student’s graduation date is hazy. So don’t ask a PhD student when they will graduate—they are wondering the same thing!

PhD students get paid

Unlike other types of grad school, you get paid to study towards a PhD. The teaching and research you do pay your tuition and salary. Your salary is never a lot, but unlike other post-graduate educations, you earn rather than pay. Depending upon the school and your area of study, a grad student earns between $15k-30k a year. You sometimes get benefits like health insurance as well (this might be universal now).

Your advisor: the master of your grad school experience

Every graduate student has an advisor. An advisor is the professor that funds you and your research project. Your advisor is the most important person in your grad school experience. Your advisor pays your salary and tuition, determines the area of your research topic, and influences your connections within your field.

An advisor can make your life miserable. If they run out of funding, you might have to teach more. They can slow your graduation. They are more than just a boss; they control your access to your doctoral degree. If you are five years into your PhD, you can’t do much if your advisor jerks you around short of quitting sans degree. And you may have noticed that professors are sometimes difficult people. Most grad students can name the difficult professors in their department.


This simple cartoon explains the significance of your research in grad school. Your research is why you get paid to go to grad school. Your research could address industrial issues or basic science. Your advisor gets money based upon the kind of research he promises to do. In grad school, you produce research output, but more importantly, you learn how to do research. You learn how to solve problems and learn to identify interesting questions.

I would argue that you also learn patience. As an undergraduate student, few tasks take more than a week. The longest tasks take is a semester. You can get help from other students or professors in many cases. If you phone it in, perhaps you’ll get a lower grade, but the task goes away. Your research in grad school is a multi-year problem solving exercise. No one in the world may know the answer to your problem. Few people in the world may even understand the significance of your problem. You can try to go in a different direction, but at some point, you will bang your head against a problem for months. You learn an appreciation for what advancing human knowledge entails. And you advance human knowledge. This may damage your ability to speak English with everyone else.

Why get a PhD?

Because you are curious. Because the type of work described above appeals to you. Don’t start a PhD because you don’t know what to do next, or because you want to make more money. A PhD in science and engineering will get you a decent paying job, but you will deal with a ton of frustration and low-income years. Law school or business school are way faster, and engineers with these skills are valuable.

I started my PhD because it seemed like an interesting thing to do next. Like a lot of students, I found the middle of the process very discouraging. School seemed like it would never end, and I didn’t know what I would do after school. But I still liked my research. I still woke up thinking of ideas of things I could do. I felt more capable as a person with the skills I was developing in grad school. Grad school will feel aimless at some point for most; it’s your innate passion that helps bridge the gap and get you to the end.

The fun stuff

Grad school can also be a lot of fun. Other members of your research group help you learn and help you cope with setbacks. Your fellow prisoners well understand your challenges. Many schools have vibrant grad student communities apart from the undergraduate communities, in which you will meet grad students studying crazy and amazing things. Almost any eccentric nerding that you enjoy will be enjoyed by some other grad student. You’re all old enough to drink at bars, and most college towns will have some fun ones. Grad students get into their beer and drinks and most long-standing grad students can tell you a lot about them. Many grad students learn to be great cooks. The resources available for the undergraduates, such as gyms, sporting events, and social clubs, are still available to you as a grad student. While you’re pulling your hair our trying to get your degree, you will be in the middle of a community with some fun distractions when you need them and some really fun peers.

Hopefully that’s a useful summary of the PhD school experience, and not rendered too incoherent by my own state of disorganization. I’m happy to provide further info to those with questions as well!