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A behind the scenes look at getting your Ph.D.

Justin Dallaire | Fulcrum Staff

THE LETTERS P, H, and D never cease to impress. Like any credentials appended to a name, the letters convey intelligence, perseverance, and hard work. As a diligent and studious undergrad, you often ponder about striving to obtain them yourself—oh, to be called doctor! But how does one obtain this hallmark of academic excellence?

Although most students have heard of doctoral studies, few understand what they actually involve. In undergrad, students go to class, complete assignments, and study the work of the experts in their field. Completing a doctorate can’t be that different, can it? The Fulcrum sat down with U of O grad students to find out.


What are doctoral studies, anyway?

We enter university wet behind the ears. We can’t imagine completing a 20-page assignment, let alone a 250 to 350-page thesis. We expect the topic for these assignments to be provided by the prof—forget about being creative and new; it’s hard enough to find sources to help us reiterate what has been said before. Moreover, we rely on the prof to remind us what needs to be done and when in order to pass the course.

These are but a few things that change when doing a Ph.D. Doctoral students conduct original research on a topic of their choice, often at their own pace and in conjunction with a prof who is, in many ways, a colleague.

“In undergrad, the work is fairly clearly set out for you: attend lectures, take notes, complete specific assignments,” explained Robert Talbot, Ph.D. student and part-time history professor at the University of Ottawa. “For the Master’s and Ph.D., there are fewer courses, but much larger projects to complete, and the direction of studies is more open—it is up to you to decide what to focus on and how to go about completing a given project. It requires a lot of discipline.”

Doctoral studies are very specialized. Students have become experts in the field by graduation. That said, Ph.D. students have an unusual relationship with professors.

“At the Ph.D. level, the dynamic between professors and students is very, very different,” said Adrien Dallaire, a first-year Ph.D. student in history, whose studies focus on the Holocaust and American foreign policy. “You get to know them on more of a social level. There’s more of an equal relationship than in undergrad.”

For many doctoral students, engaging with professors who have similar research interests can be one of the most exciting aspects of the program.

“It puts you in close contact with other experts in the field, other professors who become, in a sense, your colleagues,” explained Talbot. “It is very rewarding to engage with these people who share your specialization and enthusiasm.”


It’s not always easy being a doctor

There’s a reason many students choose not to pursue the Ph.D., content with completing a Master’s degree. Spending one to two years completing a Master’s is a small sacrifice for the benefits of a second degree. A doctorate, however, is a much larger commitment. On average, students spend anywhere from four to six years completing the program.

“I’m probably going to show up to my tenth-year high school reunion and be the only one still in school,” said Dallaire jokingly. “Others will likely be married, will have had children, and will have worked for several years. I will have never left [school].”

Another challenge is simultaneously managing a number of different projects. For Josée Fitzpatrick, a first-year Ph.D. student in Psychology, time management is key for completing the doctorate on time.

“The difference with the Ph.D. is that you are in charge of your schedule,” she said. “Your best friend is your day planner.”

Budgeting time is important because there is always work to be done.

“Every day is different, which is good, but the work is never-ending,” Fitzpatrick admitted. “You can always be working on something . . . Personally, for me, the hardest thing is finding a good work-life balance.”

Ph.D. students have few breaks. Because the program is not divided into academic terms, students must often work through summer and other holidays. Always having more work can get discouraging, especially when the research is not going as planned.

Over the course of the multi-year program, students are bound to encounter the occasional bump in the road.

“One of the toughest things [about the Ph.D.] must be the ups and downs,” said Patrick Moon, a third-year student. “I’ve heard that sometimes your research just isn’t working; you’re not achieving the desired product. That must be very frustrating.”


The right career move?

Interestingly, there is some disagreement among students as to the advantages of a doctoral degree.

Doctorates are most often sought by students who hope to become university professors; the profession requires it, after all. But the degree is no longer enough to guarantee employment at a university. Many students seeking a full-time position now complete a post-doctorate.

For prospective professors, post-doctorates add another couple of years to what is an already lengthy academic career. Post-doctorates allow recent Ph.D. graduates to gain additional knowledge and experience by completing research in collaboration with an expert in the field. The goal is to see another research project through to publication.

Talbot, who hopes to someday teach full-time at the university level, is planning to begin a post-doc through the University of New Brunswick next year. “The post-doc may help my chances of employment—it helps demonstrate that I am serious about research and capable of planning and completing a large, publishable research project within a limited amount of time,” he said.

Not all Ph.D. students become future profs, however. The degree is also useful to those seeking employment in the private sector, at least in certain fields. Moon used his program, chemistry, as an example.

“If you’re going to work with a group of researchers developing products or testing them, you’re going to need a high level of education,” he said.

However, Natalie Bisson, who will be starting her Master’s in September of next year, believes a Ph.D. can also hurt a student’s chances of employment.

“Employment can be obtained with any degree of education,” she said. “With a Ph.D., you run the chances of being overeducated for many positions.”

Like many other students, Bisson will rely on other factors when it comes time for deciding whether to pursue her doctoral degree or not.

“It’s not about the title or the letters that would come after my name,” she explained. “It’s about what I enjoy doing and whether research is one of those things.”

Earning a doctoral degree is a great accomplishment, but it’s not for every student. Before embarking on the journey to becoming a doctor, it’s important for students to recognize the challenges and rewards that lie ahead.