Tuesday, February 13, 2018

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in neuroscience from Australia

Today, Kirsten Coupland is sharing her experiences of the PhD defense with us. Kirsten completed her Bachelor of Science with first class Honours at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She then worked for a year as a research assistant under Dr. Carol Dobson-Stone at Neuroscience Research Australia investigating the role of copy number variations and miRNAs in frontotemporal dementia. She was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD position in the same lab under the co-supervision of Assoc. Prof. John Kwok to investigate the interaction between lifestyle and epigenetics in non-inherited forms of neurodegenerative disease. She is currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden and am working with Assoc. Prof. Helena Karlström to develop diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for the identification and treatment of a familial form of vascular dementia. When she's not in the lab, she likes to get moving. Stockholm is a beautiful city to explore by bike, kayak and foot! Twitter @KirstenCoupland

Unless you’ve visited Australia, it is pretty difficult to comprehend how far away it really is. When I tell colleagues in Europe that an 11-hour flight to southeast Asia only gets me half way to Sydney, they are shocked. ‘Half way?! I thought Australia was much closer!’ is what I usually hear. The distance isn’t the only thing that shocks. In Australia, we have a very different PhD format to the Bologna system. For starters, you don’t need to complete a master’s degree to do a PhD. It means you finish with a couple of extra years under your belt, but a smaller research track record. In addition, government funding for PhD positions is capped at 3.5 years. Your supervisors can fund some additional time (as mine did), but the University starts to get a bit nervous if you don’t look close to finishing at around the 4-year mark. Finally, to complete your PhD you need to submit your thesis. This is done with minimal fanfare. You literally deposit your thesis at the graduate research school, or whichever department manages the souls doing a research degree, and it is sent out to two external reviewers who then review your thesis as though it is a massive journal article. This is usually done anonymously. There is no oral defence, there is no grilling by your thesis committee. Instead you receive an email some time after depositing your thesis with a score ranging from ‘Accepted as-is’ to ‘Significant further work required for thesis to satisfy requirements of PhD’. You then have the opportunity to respond to the reviewers and, in the most dreaded of scenarios, perform further lab work. The system varies a bit University to University (some require publications, others don’t), and I want to share with you exactly how my thesis defence went down.

I handled my PhD defence in a bit of an odd manner. Before I even started writing my thesis I set about securing a postdoc for myself. Having a job to go to before finishing my thesis was possibly the smartest and dumbest move I made during my PhD. On the plus side it set an absolute deadline; I had to move to Sweden to start my work at Karolinska by February 2015, and it took some of the pressure off writing a ‘perfect’ thesis. I had a job; that’s the goal after PhD right? On the downside, I probably could have used an extra couple of months to more carefully put my thesis together. It was a bit sloppy, as evidenced by the comments I received from my reviewers. In the end I deposited my thesis at the graduate research office two weeks before flying to Sweden. This meant that I received my reviewers comments while in my new position. This was a bit of a nightmare to be honest. I was rebutting my thesis while trying to get to grips with a new role and new project. The rushed submission meant that I had totally botched one of the chapters (wrong figures referenced in the text) and I spent many weekends in the office writing my rebuttal. Tears were shed on more than one occasion. In the end my revisions were accepted and my PhD was conferred without fanfare; I received an email whilst at my desk here in Sweden.

The rebuttal process, while time-consuming, was fantastic practice for journal article rebuttal. I had the time to carefully examine my reviewers comments, incorporate them where I felt it was warranted or find literature to reinforce my stance. Furthermore by having external reviewers rather than local or internal reviewers, my thesis was reviewed by global experts in the field who provided valuable feedback that was incorporated into more than one subsequent paper.

Having experienced the far more ceremonial PhD defence system here in Sweden, involving months of administrative deadlines and an oral defence in which you are grilled by an external opponent, I can definitely see the pros and cons of the Australian system. I loved (read: hated but learned from) the written rebuttal, and had access to the minds of two prominent researchers in neuroscience and epigenetics. Time and financial constraints are perhaps less tight in other countries and would have made for a less stressful submission. Overall, no matter the PhD defence format, you will learn, and you will be glad when it is over.

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