Milestones Toward the PhD

The milestones on the path toward earning your PhD in chemistry at the University of Iowa are described below.  These are illustrative of a typical student; most students follow this path, but some variations are possible.

Demonstrating Proficiency at the Foundations

When you arrive to our department, you will first have a chance to demonstrate a level of proficiency in the foundations of chemistry so you can jump right into advanced coursework and get active in research labs more quickly. You will need to establish proficiency in three of the five subdisciplines (analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, physical). Normally, this is done by scoring 50th percentile (versus national norm) or better on three of the proficiency exams, or by taking a review course.

Choosing an Advisor

You will choose an advisor and join a research group by the end of your first semester. This allows you time to learn about different research groups, discuss research projects with potential advisors, attend research group meetings, and meet other students in the groups.

Advanced Courses

Working closely with your advisor, you will choose a plan of advanced coursework that best fits your research project.  These upper-level graduate courses strengthen your background beyond what you may see as an undergraduate and will get you well-prepared for success in research.  The minimum is 11 semester hours, which is typically four courses in the area of research interest.

Comprehensive Examination

Although you will enter the program with a PhD degree objective, you will become an official PhD Candidate when you pass the oral comprehensive examination, to be completed by the end of your second year (4th semester).  To be eligible for the comprehensive exam, you need a cumulative average of 3.00 or greater on graduate coursework at Iowa.

The comprehensive examination is an oral examination before your Graduate Academic Committee. The first part consists of a presentation of your Research Report which describes the problem you are working on in the lab and the progress you have made. Your committee will ask questions which challenge you to defend the ideas you present, show some independent thinking ability, and demonstrate a strong understanding of the relevant background material and experimental methods in that area of research. Your presentations will be based upon a written Research Report, to be submitted to the committee a couple of weeks before the exam.

Public Seminars

Sharing scientific results in public presentations is an important part of what PhD-level scientists do. You will develop your public presentation skills by giving a minimum of two seminars. A student's first seminar is generally given in the first year and is a literature-based presentation of a topic of current interest which can be related to the student's research project. The second seminar will generally be toward the end of the student's PhD project and will give them a chance to share their research progress as they approach the completion of their degree.

Innovations and Discoveries

It is important to get productive in the lab as early as possible because one of the hallmarks of the PhD degree in chemistry is a significant contribution to innovation and discovery within your research group.  When you perform new experiments to push forward at the cutting edge of your field, you and your advisor will plan how to disseminate the results to a variety of audiences. Whether it involves patents, presentations, publications, or all of the above, these products display your achievements.  Most of the content of these documents will also end up in chapters of your PhD dissertation.  The dissertation is a multi-chapter book, a complete story of the innovations and discoveries you have made during the course of your research. 

Final Defense of the PhD Dissertation

The culmination of the PhD degree path is the final defense of the dissertation. A couple of weeks before the final defense, you will provide copies of your dissertation to your committee. The defense consists of a public seminar followed by an oral examination by the Graduate Academic Committee in which the candidate addresses questions and discusses final additions and corrections to the dissertation. Once you have passed this final milestone, you will have earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

The milestones we achieve on our path to the PhD degree are sometimes challenging, often exciting, and here, at the University of Iowa, they are always designed to help you be the best independent scientist you can be.