Jump to content
Code42

What does a PhD entail?

Recommended Posts

I will be finishing a degree in bioinformatics within the next two years. I have been wanting to pursue a PhD in evolutionary biology for sometime now, but whether or not I felt I was capable of doing so has been suspect. I have a general idea of what a PhD involves, but I'm not very familiar with the process, from trying to get accepted into a PhD program to completing a PhD. I was hoping someone here could enlighten me. I have good grades now, but I had a pretty shaky experience at my first university.

 

I'm not exactly sure that ecology and evolution is the path I want to take. I mean, it is the subject I am most interested in, but I'm not sure if it will lead me to lucrative career paths. I was hoping the people here could help me sort some of this stuff out, and help inform me in making some of these decisions.

 

Currently, I am a computer science major at a really good community college. I will be transferring to a four-year school to get a bachelors in bioinformatics after I graduate this fall. Aspects of both computer science and biology interest me, but I always find myself enjoying learning about evolution in biology more. However, I'm not sure if I would enjoy the careers that a PhD in evolutionary biology would lead to. Is there anywhere in which a PhD in evolution could be applicable to, say, artificial intelligence, or any other aspect of computer science? That's probably a stupid question. I'm just kind of lost.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As far as employment opportunities in the sciences goes, you sure picked the right major. That being said, 'lucrative' (at least as far as monetary compensation is concerned) is not a word I would ever associate with any research-based career path.

 

A PhD in one thing doesn't lock you into that thing for life by any means. The skills you gain are more often than not widely transferable, particularly if you stick with computer sciences and bioinformatics, as these are both areas for which there is a great need. You will learn what specifically interests you as you go. I would encourage you to seek out undergraduate projects in research labs if you can, as this can be very informative in my experience.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Generally speaking, one earns a PhD by making an "original contribution" to the research of your chosen field. Your supervising professor will assist you in identifying an appropriate scope, and then monitor your progress as you use the skills you've developed in your prior education to plan, organize, execute, and document (your dissertation) the research program and the results.

 

Depending on the field, I wouldn't get too attached to the idea that having a PhD will boost your career income. If you're fortunate enough to distinguish yourself in some major way then it might, but no guarantees. I'm very happy to have mine, but honestly the most lucrative work of my career has had nothing to do with the field in which I conducted my research nor with the fact that I have those "letters after my name."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am not entirely sure whether bioinformatics still has a lot of growth outside academia, the initial run has cooled off over the last decade or so. But as others have said, the topics are not necessarily what gives you a job (especially in the private sector). However, you need interest in order to successfully complete a PhD.That being said, if your primary interest is to build a career, it is worthwhile to look at the job market and figure out rough venues that you could see yourself go into. There are many options that do not require a PhD. And a PhD does not necessarily result in an automatic boost in income.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Forget about income for now. It's by far not the most important thing for me. I'm more worried about how to get from where I'm at now (an average to mediocre community college student) to becoming PhD program material in the next couple of years. I'm also more worried about finding the right field for me. I know it's somewhere in biology/evolution, or in some computer science field relating to biology.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

So based on that I'd say read and study. Not just programming languages, but also algorithm and data structure theory and so on - computer science stuff. As well as stuff related to the biology / evolution field you're interested in. Depending on where you are now you may need to start on the ground floor on the algos / structures stuff, but there are lots of references out there you can find, I'd think.


Some algorithms in the bio area do well on GPUs (graphics processing units). You've got CUDA and similar frameworks which are oriented toward programming stuff on GPUs, so that would be a good thing to become familiar with too.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Forget about income for now. It's by far not the most important thing for me. I'm more worried about how to get from where I'm at now (an average to mediocre community college student) to becoming PhD program material in the next couple of years. I'm also more worried about finding the right field for me. I know it's somewhere in biology/evolution, or in some computer science field relating to biology.

You seem quite determined to do a PhD and I would never discourage you. Once you do well at your degree, I would apply to do a Masters in Science. In the UK, you get a small amount of funding for an MSc and you can taste what it is like to make an original contribution to Science. After that, if you are liked you can stay with your lab to do a PhD or move to another lab to start a new PhD. You have to keep your private life on hold and your supervisor starts off with a God-like status which soon deteriorates until you think he/she is a complete idiot by the time you finish your PhD. I don't know if that is a universal experience but it did seem quite common when I was a PhD student....

Edited by jimmydasaint

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am a professor at one of the UC's who specializes in bioinformatics and evolutionary biology.

 

Typically a PhD program in the US entails 5-6 years of coursework, teaching assistance and research. In Europe and Australia, 3.5 years of pure research is more typical.

 

Typically, there are 3 things I look for in a PhD student:

1) Meets minimum undergraduate GPA/GRE requirements to qualify for funding in the University of California system. While these scores don't actually predict success in graduate school and are kind of BS, I can't fund you unless you meet the minimum standard set by the system.

2) Research experience; all of the graduate students I've taken on have done something other than just as graduate degree - some have a research Masters, some have industry experience, some have both. I generally wouldn't take someone straight out of their undergraduate degree, unless they had exceptional experience as well.

3) A clear idea of why you are applying to grad school and what you want to do there - you'd be surprised at the number of applicants whose motivation boils down to "well, I got good grades and I don't really know what I want to do next" or "I want to be able to put Dr in front of my name on stuff". 6 years is a long time and grad school isn't always fun - you need determination to get through and there's a strong likelihood that someone with the wrong motivations will drop out.

 

As for careers, along the way I've worked as a zookeeper, environmental consultant and a data consultant. One thing to keep in mind is that while unemployment rates for PhD's are much lower than the general average, only around 10-15% of STEM PhD graduates end up on the tenure track, and just over half will leave science altogether - so having a plan B career and being totally OK with it is something I would consider essential for a PhD student.

 

One thing I would warn any bioinformatics savvy student is to be careful in picking a lab. Many of the big, biomedical labs treat students as cheap labor, and will keep a programming savvy student around for as long as possible in essentially a code monkey on a $20k salary. One the other end of the spectrum is a lab like mine, where I only ever have 2-3 students, who work independently on a broad range of projects - although because of this they don't tend to work terribly collaboratively. Pick somewhere in the spectrum that suits you best.

 

So my advice in general would be to 1. Keep you grades up. 2.Get some research experience and 3. Read up on fields that interest you, e.g. metagenomics, microbiomes, co-evolution, gene regulation, genomics, phylogenomics, population genetics etc. keeping in mind which broad questions interest you. Best of luck!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Expressing an opinion, almost independently of what has been mentioned above, I would say that PhD entails in finding a cure for a disease. (to mention one research area that we all understand its importance)

 

If one is even wondering if it's the proper path to follow, better not go. Needs dedication, the work is very demanding for most all PhDs and everybody have high expectations. This is almost the definition of pressure, only if they love what they do they overcome the side effects.

 

PS. I accept that this is an almost ideal consideration, but so is PhD.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.