I was writing something the other day (I know, vague, but I can’t remember exactly what I was doing) when I started thinking about the structure (or lack of structure) in a PhD program. It’s not structure-less, but the structure can often times feel so flimsy and ill-defined that it often feels that way. I think the best term is semi-structured.
In order to get a PhD in my department, I know I need to meet the following requirements:
- Complete x or x+1 courses depending on where I did my Masters
- Give 3 presentations at which a minimum of 2 faculty members are present
- Successfully pass candidacy
- Successfully do a final defence (which includes a presentation – but this can be used towards the above count of 3 presentations as well)
- Complete a residency requirement of 2 years (I’m pretty sure it’s 2 – I’m feeling to lazy to check)
How I go about meeting the requirements is up to me. I can do all three presentations in my last month at the University or during my first year. I could be here for a while, do my work from somewhere else for a while before coming back, as long as over the course of my degree I meet the residency requirements. I can do my candidacy at the end of my first year or as close as 6 months to my final defence.
As to what my project is on, the rules often feel even more vague. The following are a bunch of (paraphrased) quotes I’ve heard over the years. “It needs to be PhD-level material.” “It must be new and noteworthy.” “It must add something to the feel.” “It needs to be big enough, but not too big that it can’t be done in a reasonable amount of time.” But what does any of that mean? Nothing really. At the end of the day, when you’re sitting in your final defence, it’s up to the committee sitting there to come up with some definition to the above questions and decide if your project meets it.
I think the fact that the PhD is so semi-structure and vague makes it both terrifying and wonderful. Terrifying because it’s really really hard to judge your progress (and of course everyones favorite question – how much longer do you have/are you almost done?). Yet it’s wonderful because there’s so much freedom to do what you want instead of what someone else dictates.