Preparing for the PhD Research Project
The largest, longest, and most difficult part of earning a PhD is unquestionably the dissertation.Before you can even choose an appropriate project and write your PhD research proposal, though, you need to have enough background in your field of study to be able to judge which projects are appropriate. That brings us back to the easiest part of the PhD: taking classes!
Of course, easy is a relative term: graduate and postgraduate courses tend to be an order of magnitude more difficult than undergraduate classes. The assumption is that if you’re in graduate school, you’re able and willing to do significantly more challenging work than is expected for undergraduates; additionally, because there are generally no or very few required courses, professors don’t feel the need to dumb classes down to where the average student taking the class because he has to can understand it. In short: be prepared to work! There’s a reason why full time enrollment for a graduate student is only two or three classes.
So which classes do you need to take? This depends largely on what you already took as an undergrad and whether you completed a master’s degree or entered a combined masters plus doctorate program. You’ll want to consult with an advisor; while you may not have chosen a permanent advisor yet (as you generally need to decide on an area to do your research in first), you should have been assigned someone to talk to, and this person will be experienced in working up PhD course outlines to support a research project.
Generally, the PhD requirements for your college will include a breadth requirement, meaning you have to take classes from a number of different areas in your field in order to give you a good exposure to and overview of the field before you begin to specialize. During your master’s degree, or in the first two years of a combined program, you should be taking 500-level (introductory graduate) classes in multiple fields, particularly the more general ones.
For example, someone earning a PhD in computer science might start out by taking a course in Algorithms, because that’s one of the foundational areas of computer science and something everyone pursuing a postgraduate degree in the field is likely to need, regardless of their subfield; they might then take courses in diverse subjects such as artificial intelligence, compiler design, computer security, computer graphics, etc. By the time you finish your breadth requirement, you should have a good idea of exactly which areas you prefer to work on, as well as having an idea of what the people in areas you aren’t as interested in do.
Advanced Graduate Classes
Once you’ve settled on one area, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Continuing with the computer science example, someone deciding that he or she prefers to work in artificial Intelligence might them take classes in machine learning, natural language processing, and neural networks. At this point, you become more specialized, finding exactly which aspects of your chosen field interest you the most and gaining the background necessary to understand technical papers in the field.
It is at this point where you can begin planning your research project; now that you’re reading advanced material in your field, you’ll have gained the ability to look for open problems and judge whether a given problem would make a good PhD thesis topic. For your research project, you want something that is significant but not too far above your current skill level.
By the time you actually start on your PhD research project, you’ll be finished or nearly finished with your classes, and taking only advanced coursework in the area (or other classes that just happen to interest you). However, when working up the course outlines for your phd research project, remember that it’s just find to branch out into areas that you don’t think are strictly relevant; you never know when something might grab your attention and branch off into a whole new area of research.
Although you’ll need to file a program of study fairly early on, don’t think that you’re locked into it; with your advisor’s approval, you can go back and alter it as your needs change. Additionally, don’t be afraid to take more classes than are strictly needed to graduate, or even classes that wouldn’t count towards graduation as all. The author, for example, once sat in on an undergraduate class during his PhD studies; while the course had nothing to do with his degree and he couldn’t use the lower-level credit, he still found it interesting and worthwhile.
Graduate school is generally the last chance you’ll get to spend years learning about whatever you’re interested in. Do set up a course outline that supports your research project, but when the opportunity arises to jump into a new subject of interest, take advantage of it!