Ph.D. Information

Ph.D. Proposal

Before starting a Ph.D., and as part of starting to work with an advisor, you should write a Ph.D. proposal. You also need a Ph.D. proposal in order to apply for many financial aid fellowship or scholarship programs. There is a lot of material on the web about writing Ph.D. proposals. 

There are two resources within our group. Writing a Ph.D. Research Proposal is a short summary of what a Ph.D. research proposal should contain. In addition, there is a detailed Mindmap with Questions that asks a lot of the questions people are going to ask about a Ph.D. research proposal. If you are going to write a Ph.D. proposal, I suggest you start with the mindmap, work out answers to its questions together with your advisor, and then finally condense those answers into a Ph.D. proposal.

It is also a good idea to have a look at other Ph.D. proposals; you can find many examples on the web. The UNC collection of proposals is generally pretty good.


Here is how a Ph.D. should typically proceed (after your Diplom/Master):
  • Year 1
    • meet any remaining departmental requirements (courses, etc.)
    • NB: you must complete these requirements on time or there may be serious problems; if you need extensions, apply ahead of time
    • catch up on any materials you need for your Ph.D. research (including the Ph.D. Qualifications)
    • if you have time, get started on a small project in the research lab
    • get formal approval from the department
  • Year 2
    • successfully complete one or more smaller projects in the area of your Ph.D. research with your advisor
    • based on the projects, publish a couple of papers in the general area of your Ph.D.
    • read lots of papers related to your research area
    • identify research opportunities and come up with ideas
    • write a thesis proposal and defend it
  • Years 3 & 4
    • pick a second reader (and possibly a third reader if you want to go for honors)
    • do the research
    • continue to publish
    • start looking for jobs or postdoc funding
    • write up and defend your thesis
Note that you usually don't launch into your Ph.D. right after your coursework; generally, you should do one or two smaller projects to see whether Ph.D. research is really for you, to get familiar with the field, and to work out how to work with your advisor.  
  • After your coursework, get started by picking small, simple projects that lead to small, simple publishable papers, then work your way up to more complex projects and more challenging papers.
  • For the initial projects, your advisor will suggest ideas and topics that familiarize you with the techniques, allow for publications, and demonstrate that you can work in the area.
The times aren't fixed--just typical. For example, if you did your coursework at UniKL, you may already meet all requirements.  If you have already done a thesis or project in the lab, you may be able to launch into a Ph.D. right away. Or, satisfying your departmental requirements might take a little longer than one year if your previous degree was significantly different from ours.

Note that the final months of your Ph.D. defense are going to be pretty busy.  You need to give drafts of your thesis to your readers months before you submit.  You need to ensure that you submit your thesis in time for the department to schedule your defense. You also need to make sure that your thesis readers can attend your defense.  If you choose readers from outside the university, please ensure that we can cover their travel costs ahead of time and have all their travel arranged through Ingrid, otherwise there may be problems with travel reimbursement.

Honors degrees have special requirements, both on the number of publications and the impact of the journals and conferences where you publish. If you want to obtain a degree with honors, check the departmental requirements, identify a third reader, and discuss it with your advisor several months before submitting your thesis.  Unless you meet all these requirements, "Sehr Gut" is the best grade you can receive.

Finishing on Time

It is important that you finish your Ph.D. on schedule.  Your schedule may be determined by your funding source, by academic requirements, personal goals, and visa requirements.  In particular, remember the following:
  • Leave enough time to write up your thesis and to satisfy all the departmental deadlines. You should generally plan on having completed all your major research results about six months before handing in the thesis to leave enough time for writing up the work and addressing any problems that may come up.  
  • After you have completed and handed in your thesis, departmental deadlines and scheduling may mean that it may take several months before you can defend your thesis.  Find out from the department what the deadlines and times are and take this into account in your planning.
  • If you're on a scholarship, it is very important that you finish your thesis before it runs out, both for financial reasons and because that is probably a condition of your scholarship.
  • If you're financed by a project, it's important that you are proactive in getting follow-on funding if you think you need it (i.e., talk to your advisor about a year before the project ends).
  • If you just need a few extra months, you may be able to apply for a short term scholarship from the university or other sources.  Be sure to find out about the deadlines and apply in time.

Other Things to Remember

  • Keep track of your departmental requirements, university deadlines, funding, etc.; nobody else is doing that for you.
  • With a Ph.D., you need to demonstrate your ability to conduct scholarly research on your own, at an advanced level. 
  • Look at some resources on the web, for example How to Be a Good Graduate Student
  • To help you keep on track and make progress, schedule regular (preferably weekly) appointments with your advisor.
  • Keep a lab notebook (online if you like), logging results, interpretations, paper notes, and ideas.
  • If there are issues, concerns, or problems, talk to your advisor about them right away, don't let them simmer.
  • Teaching experience is part of the Ph.D., so you should expect to assist in courses no matter how you are financed.
  • Do not become a service organization for your fellow students (except to the degree that it's an explicit part of your job description on a project or as a HiWi); you don't get a Ph.D. for fixing other people's computers or bugs.
  • If you're financed through a project (rather than a stipend or fellowship), that's what pays the rent; you are effectively doing your Ph.D. in addition to a job and your Ph.D. may take longer.  It helps to pick a project that's close to your Ph.D. interests.
  • For the Ph.D., the ideas and scientific contributions should primarily come from you.
  • Leave enough time (> 1 week) for your advisor to give you feedback on your papers before you submit them.
  • You should become more of an expert on your Ph.D. topic than your advisor: the literature, techniques, key results, key people, etc.
  • Keep in mind that your advisor is spending time with you because he enjoys interesting scientific discussions with you, learning something from you, and likes to see good, regular publications.

Thesis and Paper Submission

Writing papers is a prerequisite for getting a Ph.D., and you should generally plan on publishing 1-2 conference papers per year, and at least one journal paper, while you are getting your Ph.D.  For getting a Ph.D. with honors, you should aim for publications in the key conferences and journals in your area.

Please remember the following points about paper and thesis submission:
  • Every co-author of a paper needs to receive copies of the final paper before submission, and they need to give you their explicit OK for publication. You need to leave enough time before the deadline so that you can address any potential issues they may have with the paper.
  • For a Ph.D. thesis, you need to send drafts of chapters to your thesis supervisor starting at least about six months before submission.  You should give him a complete draft about two months before submission.  For a Master thesis, you should send in a complete draft several weeks before submission.   If you don't meet these deadlines, your supervisor may not be able to give you a lot of feedback. 
  • Copies of papers and theses that you send to your supervisor or others for reviewing should be double spaced and with wide margins, so that there is room for commenting.
  • For thesis and paper reviews in our group, please put a PDF of the draft (double spaced etc.) into a Google Drive folder, give that folder a descriptive name, and then share it with your reviewer(s).
Your thesis readers may point out problems with style, organization, grammar, and spelling, but you should really address these issues yourself before giving your paper to people to review for content.  For improving style and organization, it is generally a good idea to put your thesis/paper aside for a couple of weeks and re-read it critically with a fresh mind; that way, you can identify many problems yourself.  Of course, you need to leave enough time for that.

Ph.D. Research

Here is a guide about paper writing and research strategy for graduate students in IUPR.  Below is a related presentation about how to do Ph.D. research.

Ph.D. research