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What is a Ph.D., and Why is Celebrating it Important?

Thanks to our graduate student correspondent Briley Lewis aka AstroBriles for writing this post!

Academia can often be opaque and confusing, but finishing a Ph.D. is a life event so large that some people compare it to having a child. Especially for first-generation students like myself, sometimes not everyone understands why it’s such a big deal, so here I’ll lay out some of the big steps.

UCLA awards 770 doctoral degrees | UCLA
UCLA PhD graduation; Image from UCLA Newsroom

 

Getting a Ph.D. in astronomy, like many other fields, is an almost decade-long journey. First, you have to get your Bachelor’s (undergraduate) degree and go through the grueling (and expensive) process of applying to grad school. Grad school for astronomy often combines a Master’s and a Ph.D. into one program.

For example, in my program at UCLA, we spend our first two years taking classes, and then take a huge exam (known as the comprehensive exam) to “level up” — getting our Master’s degree. Then, the next 3-5 years are filled with research, aka actually doing the science required for your thesis! Along the way, you have to “advance to candidacy,” when you propose what you’re going to do for your thesis project to a committee of selected faculty. At the end, you have to defend your Ph.D. thesis, aka dissertation in front of that same committee. By the time all of this is over, most folks have been in higher education for nine years, if not more.

Scientific research can be a grueling process, too. Although at times it can also be really fun — with the thrill of discovery and the fact that it’s just cool to learn about the cosmos — a lot of research is just failing in new and creative ways, over and over again. Trying to answer questions that haven’t been answered before can be a lot of dead ends, finding little errors and doing things over again, and triple checking to make sure you’re as right (or least wrong) as you can be. At the same time as all this, many grad students have other responsibilities: teaching undergraduate classes, running department events, trying to make their institutions more inclusive and supportive places, and more. 

The thesis “defense” presentation itself is the culmination of these years of work — showing what you’ve worked on, how much you’ve learned over the years, and the new knowledge you’ve uncovered about the Universe. It’s often a really stressful and intimidating event, and if someone invites you to their defense, you should go! They are proud of what they’ve done, and also want the support of a friendly face in the crowd. And after, when someone passes to be officially granted their Ph.D., it’s worthy of a truly huge celebration.

Let me now present to you a list: Gifts that I, an astronomy grad student, would probably literally cry tears of joy about if someone bought them for me for my PhD defense

    Dr. Salutation Wood Pin

    Nebula Image Woven Throw Blanket

    JWST Mirror Acrylic Necklace

    Pluto + Charon Dangle Earrings

    Constellations Glow-In-The-Dark Twirl Skirt

    Astronomer Nameplate Necklace

    Although there’s some lighthearted joking in this wish list (maybe I wouldn’t cry, but these are certainly great gifts), it really does mean the world to a student for someone to recognize the incredibly hard work they’ve put in to get their degree. I know I’m sure going to celebrate a whole bunch when I finally get to put “Dr.” in front of my name! :)

    Check out all the STARtorialist gift ideas for grads!

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