Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

The final defense is the last hoop you have to jump through in grad school! Photo credit: flick user Palma Co Test.

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed! This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet. It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes. And then… you’re done. Done? Huh... Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D. Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful. But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done. Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. My labmates have become my good friends—we have so much fun together both inside and outside the lab. My adviser is a down-to-earth person who has been supportive of my nontraditional career plans. Not all labs are as friendly, and not all advisers are as encouraging and supportive, to say the least. And perhaps most importantly, my project has cooperated with me. Even after I fell out of love with my research, we were able to maintain a good working relationship.

Ahh, a good old journalism meme. Photo credit: stuffjournalistslike.com

So, what’s next? That’s the question of the hour! The good news is that I’ve been offered a fellowship for a 12-month Masters in journalism program at the University of Illinois. This is fantastic because I wasn’t really interested in taking out loans to get a degree that I don’t necessarily need to be a science writer. But, what can I say, I’m a sucker for getting paid to go to school! And I think I’ll have a lot of fun developing my skills as a reporter and writer. There are core classes that every student has to take for the Masters degree, and other classes that I can choose based on my interests. I’m most excited about taking a course on magazine writing, and another course devoted to multimedia. Some of my friends think I’m crazy for wanting to go back to school after having been in school for so long. But I don’t think of it as school as much as just a chunk of time devoted to having lots of fun exploring different types of journalism, developing my skill set, and thinking about what type of science writer I want to be. There are several things I still need to figure out for myself: Do I want to write for a technical audience, or a more general audience? Journalism or public relations? Freelance or staff job? I think I know the answers to some of these questions, but they are based on the limited science writing experiences I’ve gleaned throughout the past two years of doing full-time research. I’m really looking forward to taking the next year of my life to focus on growing as a journalist and exploring the different paths that are laid out before me. Journalism school starts this fall. In the meantime, I’ll be wrapping things up in the lab. Then over the summer I’ll work as a freelance science writer, unless a science writing internship presents itself between now and then. My time at the bench is nearing an end, and this phase of my life will become a memory. If I could go back, would I do it all over again? That’s really tough. Of course I don’t need a Ph.D. to write about science. But through grad school, I’ve learned how to seek out information, how to think critically and how to ask questions. I have an understanding about what it takes to do science, which gives me both a greater appreciation for it and an awareness of its limitations. If I were to enter this world straight out of college, I would be lacking in these areas. It’s not just a degree I’ve earned in these five years. I’ve grown as a scientist, but perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned a lot about myself and what drives me, about what gets me out of bed in the morning and what I’m passionate about. So, I don’t have any regrets. And I’m just really excited to begin my new post-grad school life. Further Reading:  Would I recommend other science writers to go for a PhD first? Among science writers, this is a topic of debate. To learn about how other science writers have broken into the field, check out Ed Yong's post, "On the Origin of Science Writers." And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about Part II of the highlights from the Pittcon 2012 Nontraditional Careers Networking Session. My mind has just been a teensy bit distracted by these thoughts about passing my defense that I needed to get them out. Thanks for listening!

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. Thanks, Rachel! 🙂

  2. Congratulations, on both the defense and the scholarship! I hope that the journalism program turns out to be as useful for you as mine was for me. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Jyllian and Bethany!

  4. Congrats!

    I can’t wait for some hard-hitting, Woodward & Bernstein type investigative journalism.

  5. Dear Christine,
    Congratulations on your defense and for scholarship to pursue your dreams further. It was a very interesting article that summarized the well known words ‘follow your heart’. I am a Ph.D. candidate too and sometimes I think about the non-traditional paths as a career. I am very interested in choosing scientific writing as a career. Just like you mentioned, I am also left wondering sometimes, do I need a Ph.D. for this? But I am so convinced by your argument that while going thought the graduate school we develop critical thinking and a better understanding of the science.
    Good luck to you.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Priyanka! Here’s a link to a Science blog post I found that discusses the question: Should I get a PhD to be a science writer?


    Here’s a quote that I think sums up the matter well: “…pursue a Ph.D. only if you so love doing that work that you have to — or, by extension, if you’re so close to the degree that the time to finish is relatively small. But don’t start or slog through to the end because you think you need the degree to succeed as a science writer.”

    I was starting the 4th year of my Ph.D. program when I realized I seriously wanted to be a science writer. I certainly considered the option of leaving with a Masters degree, but I think it actually worked out quite well that I could pursue science writing on the side during my last two years of grad school. Not all advisers would have been supportive of this, but I was very fortunate mine was.

    But every science writer’s path into the field is unique– I hope you check out Ed Yong’s blog post that compiles the stories of many, many science writers as you consider what makes the most sense for you. Good luck!