This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Brittany McCall discusses getting a PhD in the USA.

Where are you getting your PhD?

Brittany presenting her research at the Southeastern Fishes Council annual meeting. Photo credit: Brook Fluker
Brittany presenting her research at the Southeastern Fishes Council annual meeting. Photo credit: Brook Fluker

I am beginning my 3rd year as a Ph.D. student at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, AR.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

There have been several PhD students before me in this program and on average it has taken them six years to complete it.

Tell us about the process of completing your degree (e.g.; must you sit in front of a panel? Is it a formal defense or more casual? Is your thesis examined by reviewers?). How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

My program is environmental sciences, which is designed to be an interdisciplinary degree. We are required to complete 42 credit-hours beyond a master’s degree, and a credit-hour is the number of contact hours a student spends per week in a class/lecture setting for the course (see the info-box below for comparisons of international credit systems). There are three categories of “core courses” we are required to complete, (1) environmental chemistry and water sciences, (2) environmental policy and law, and (3) an interdisciplinary study. Additional required courses are ethics, statistics, environmental seminar, and topical seminar. The remaining credits are dissertation hours. We are required to maintain 9 credit-hours per semester, as well as 3 credit-hours during the summer following candidacy.

United States Credit System (SCH) 
Most programs use Semester Credit Hours. A full-time study load is 30 credit-hours per year. A US Credit is generalized as one hour in class and two hours outside of class for a course’s weekly workload. Therefore, the completion of one US Credit is between 45 and 50 hours, which is a minimum of 15 contact hours.
European Transfer Credit System (ETCS)
A full-time study year is roughly 60 ECTS, or between 1500 and 1800 hours, meaning the expected time input for one ECTS is between 25 and 30 hours.
United Kingdom Credit System (CATS)
Most programs use the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). Full-time study for one semester is 60 CATS points, so 120 CATS per year.

We are required to have five committee members, which includes my advisor and a member that is considered “outside of the sciences”. Following the finalization of our committee, we are expected to complete qualifying exams. There is one written exam that is provided by the “outside of the sciences” committee member, and the remaining can be written, oral, or a combination of the two and is decided on by the committee. I will be taking mine this Fall semester, so I cannot go into detail about format from personal experiences; however, from other colleagues, these exams have ranged from writing a grant, to written tests regarding current research in your field of interest, to oral examinations that are free ranging in questions. I can speak with my committee once they have decided on the format to know how to study, and the exams take place an average of two months following a final decision.

Once qualifying exams have been passed, I must complete an open, formal proposal defense. A written proposal is provided to your committee two weeks prior to the defense. Proposal defenses take place at a lecture hall in front of my committee and are open to the public. A proposal defense consists of a formal presentation (approximately 30-min to 1-hour duration) of my research to my committee and the general public. There is an open question and discussion period where the general public can further inquire about my research. Lastly, there is a private duration (approximately one to two hours) where it is just the committee and I discussing both my written work and my presentation. A successful defense leads to candidacy status.

In the final year of the program, a dissertation defense takes place (similar format to the proposal defense). The program completion is determined by the outcome of the defense, so it is no small matter. However, if there has been proper communication with your committee throughout the process, it typically is not something to heavily stress over.

It is strongly advised for us to have published as much of our work prior to our dissertation defense, but not required. Otherwise, our written work is only reviewed by our committee.

Tell us about your research.

Brittany with Pink Heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) Photo credit:River Watson
Brittany with Pink Heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus) Photo credit:River Watson

My research background is currently systematics and population genetics. However, I have been fortunate enough to develop my own project, so I decided to take a risk and push my limits with my dissertation. I would like to be confident in calling myself a molecular ecologist; therefore, I have included aspects into my current that challenge me, such as ecological modeling and immunogenetic assays!

I love catfish and have based my entire dissertation around a genus of understudied, freshwater catfishes called madtoms. The overall aim of my research is to assess the utility of these catfishes as conservation management tools for headwater streams (i.e., Strahler stream order ≤ 2). However, there are some knowledge gaps that need to be addressed; therefore, my dissertation consists of (1) a systematic reevaluation of the genus using genomic methods; (2) species distribution modeling to evaluate the vulnerability of these catfishes to hydrologic-climatic change; (3) a case study to determine the effectiveness of madtoms to delineate areas of conservation concern throughout a riverscape; and (4) an immunogenetic, baseline study to assess madtom species’ adaptability potential throughout the evolutionary history of the genus.

Aside from research what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

I am a SUPERB scholar, which is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded collaboration that emphasizes mentorship and the utilization of natural history collections in research. Because of this program, I’ve acquired additional responsibilities, such as mentoring 2-3 undergraduate students with their individual projects and being a curation manager for the aquatic natural history collections (e.g., fishes and aquatic macroinvertebrates) at the university.

Outside of the SUPERB program, I am a teaching assistant. The environmental sciences program only requires students (both M.Sc. and Ph.D.) to assist with one lab per semester. The responsibilities vary depending on the PI of the course. Some PI’s prefer for the teaching assistant to lead the lab all semester and report as needed, while others are more hands on and just want assistance throughout the semester. This semester, my role is more to assist than to lead. I am expected to attend all labs, maintain office hours, and assist with whatever the PI needs (e.g., grading, lab setup, developing lab exercises; etc.). These positions are a way for all graduate students to earn money and are not necessarily mandatory, but our department relies heavily on graduate students to fill these teaching assistant positions because most undergraduate level labs provided by the department are primarily lead by teaching assistants.

Everyone knows getting any graduate degree is stressful and challenging, but it can feel impossible when outside entities knock you down with no community to help build you back up or keep you sane.

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with obtaining your PhD where you are located?

Being a WOC (Woman Of Color) and LGBTQ+ has been an issue within both my campus and city communities. Everyone knows getting any graduate degree is stressful and challenging, but it can feel impossible when outside entities knock you down with no community to help build you back up or keep you sane. However, an effort to build a more inclusive and diverse atmosphere throughout our department began this past year with the development of a Science Graduate Student Alliance and a diversity committee, the A-State BioDiversity Committee, that allows students (both grad and undergrad) and faculty to collaborate as equals to address issues regarding diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the department. I am one of the founding and active leaders in the BioDiversity Committee and a participating member of the graduate student alliance. My hope is that the effort being made by myself and fellow graduate students will establish a supportive community to where who you are and what you look like do not contribute to the stress of academia.

What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?

Of course the research is fun to do, but I am passionate about teaching and outreach, which is highly encouraged within the environmental sciences program. We have a network of K-12 programs (pre-college schools with students that range from 5 to 18 years of age) that we are encouraged to work with and a lot of supportive faculty to facilitate teaching and mentoring opportunities with underprivileged children. Some of my colleagues from other universities discuss how they are expected to eat, sleep, and breathe their research, and I know this mentality varies between labs, but I appreciate the support our faculty provide with such side projects.

How is your PhD done?

Brittany with Sauger (Sander canadensis). Photo credit: Dustin Thomas
Brittany with Sauger (Sander canadensis). Photo credit: Dustin Thomas

My research requires a decent amount of both lab and field work. My first two years have consisted of me traveling across the southern U.S. to collect tissue samples of all 29 recognized species of madtoms. I have been using a combination of kick-set seining (setting a 10-ft wide seine in position and herding fish into the seine starting approx.1.5-m away) and backpack electrofishing. In between traveling, when not in class, my research time is/was spent consolidating occurrence data from collection databases and working with the programs R and ArcGIS to develop and validate distribution models. 

This next year will shift dramatically, with most of my time being spent in a lab learning/using genomic methods, such as RAD-seq (restriction site associated DNA). I will also be overcoming a learning curve with developing immune assays to assess for polymorphic alleles within MHC (major histocompatibility complex) genes of madtoms. Field work will be placed on the back-burner until next summer when I will be completing snorkeling surveys in the Ouachita Highlands of Arkansas.

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realize going in?

I aspire to be a PI of my own lab, facilitating a range of research under the umbrella of aquatic ecology. Being a PI, you get to be your own boss (for the most part) and get paid to answer questions that interest you the most, while in a constant state of learning from the next generation you’re mentoring towards their own success.

I hope to produce science that can make a difference in environmental/conservation-based policy. However, I also hope that establishing a lab will further help to champion for change in our field regarding the importance of diversity in the sciences and be role model for those who may not feel represented or seen in the sciences.

What I did not realize was the mental toll such a program has. Discussing mental illness is so taboo and you can be shamed for expressing any struggle, being viewed as an excuse or that you’re too weak for the program. However, the reality is that the majority of others in graduate programs are feeling the same and it is OKAY. This is something that should be discussed more freely, especially to new students going in to graduate programs.

You can read some of Brittany’s published work in the Journal of Crustacean Biology. Brittany also has three papers in review with Conservation Genetics, Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, and Southeastern Fishes Council Proceedings.

Follow Brittany on Twitter (@mccallmeb), ResearchGate, and LinkedIn.

Read more posts in this series here.