Matter, Energy, and Life of Michaela A. Castello.

Inside the PhD Program

Somehow I managed to sleep for twelve hours last night. I thought I’d take a “short nap” at around 8 PM, and basically ended up waking at 8 AM this morning. Huh. Oh, also it’s Rapture Day. Having made a similar mistake more than a hundred years ago, Seventh-Day Adventists know what to do. Anyway, I wanted to go into a bit more depth on the details of the PhD program I’m completing. I’ve talked about the whole MD/PhD program before, but I get the feeling some of my friends and family members are still a bit confused.

One thing adding to the confusion is that Loma Linda University (LLU) runs on a quarter system instead of a semester system like most schools, which divides the typical academic year into thirds instead of halves (the fourth quarter is summer). Rachel’s school is one of the many on a semester system, so our finals and breaks don’t line up.

With that out of the way, getting a PhD can be divided into two phases: precandidacy and candidacy. As a PhD candidate, you’re trying to prove that you’re good enough to be allowed into the PhD club by researching and defending a thesis. As a precandidate (where I am right now), you’re a student trying to prove that you’re good enough to even make the attempt through classes and preliminary work.

This first year, I’ve been taking a number of required classes that are supposed to ensure that everybody in the program is starting  with a similar foundation. In addition to courses in ethics, statistics, and grant writing, we have a single basic science class that’s been split over three quarters and covers everything from cellular transport to gastrointestinal physiology. When I talk about studying or taking tests, it’s usually for this class. At LLU, we also have to attend a seminar where our fellow students talk about their research on Mondays, chapel on Wednesdays, and a seminar by a visiting speaker on Thursdays (this last one includes snacks).

Unlike in undergrad, these classes don’t take up all the available time. You’re expected to spend the rest of the time in lab, rotating through two or three labs until you decide where you want to stay. I was able to make this decision after my second rotation, and will be staying in Dr. Soriano’s lab for the rest of my PhD here. As a precandidate, the goal is to advance to full candidacy, which involves completing the additional required classes for the specific PhD specialty you want—Physiology, in my case (barring a change of mind)—and taking that specialty’s comprehensive qualifying exam (“comps” or “quals”).

Once I have passed comps and become a PhD candidate I can propose my thesis project. Rather than simply selecting an interesting idea, however, this proposal needs to be based on preliminary work that I’ve already completed. Thus, the challenge from now until then is to complete my coursework and pass comps while getting enough work done in the lab that I can propose as soon as I am eligible. After that, it’s all on me to gather the data, intelligently defend my conclusions, and write it all up in a body of work that will literally fill a bound a volume, upon which I’ll be given my first doctorate get a hood and other gear to wear during graduation exercises.

I’m hoping to make good progress on my research experiments this summer, when I don’t have to take classes and can work as the project dictates. That way, when I’m taking classes again in the fall, I can do more of the analysis and writing work that more easily adapts to the in-between spaces. I’m aiming to finish everything in three years so that when things inevitably go wrong and cause me to lose time, I still end up finishing in the typical four years instead of slipping to five or six. I might also have to start medical school before fully completing the PhD to avoid having to take additional or duplicate classes, but I’m not worrying about that yet.

As for the rest of this quarter, I have a test on Monday, one more test after that and then I’m done with all the first year courses. After that I just need to accumulate ten credits of Physiology whenever I can fit them in. LLU also requires religion courses, but since you don’t have to have finished them before you take quals I’m planning on spreading them out over the whole time.

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2 responses to “Inside the PhD Program”

  1. LoneWolf Avatar

    Would people who harbored irreligious thoughts be forced to keep them to themselves while in the religion courses in order to do well? Or are the classes welcoming of differing viewpoints?

    1. SteelWolf Avatar

      I haven’t taken any yet, but it seems like the religion classes are more like ethics classes. There are topics you write on and passing the classes is pretty much based on doing the assignments.

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