Milestones Toward the Ph.D.

The milestones on the path toward earning your Ph.D. degree 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 Competency at the Foundations

When you arrive to our department, you’ll first have a chance to demonstrate a level of competency in the foundations of chemistry so that you can jump right into advanced coursework and get active in research labs more quickly.  You’ll need to establish this competency 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 taking a review course.

Choosing an Advisor

You’ll choose an advisor during the first semester, which 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’ll 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’ll enter the program with the Ph.D. degree objective, you’ll officially advance to “Ph.D. candidate” at the end of your second year (4th semester) when you pass the oral comprehensive examination.  It can be taken earlier.  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 a two-part oral examination before your Graduate Academic Committee. The first part consists of a presentation of your Research Report which describes the problem you’re working on in the lab and the progress you’ve made on it. The second part is an oral defense of a Research Proposal which is your own new creative idea for a research project, different from your lab work.  In both parts, 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 and Research Proposal which you’ll have 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 Ph.D.-level scientists do.  You’ll develop your public presentation skills by giving a minimum of two seminars.  The first is generally in the first year and is a literature-based presentation of a topic of current interest which can be related to the research project you have in the lab. The second seminar will generally be toward the end of the Ph.D. project and will give you a chance to share your own research progress as you approach the completion of your degree.

Innovations and Discoveries

It’s important to get productive in the lab as early as possible because one of the hallmarks of the Ph.D. degree in chemistry is a significant contribution to innovation and discovery within the research group you’ve joined.  When you do some 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 are products that display the achievements you’ve made.  Most of the content of these documents will also end up in chapters of your Ph.D. dissertation.  The dissertation is a multi-chapter book, a complete story of the innovations and discoveries you’ve made during the course of your research. 

Final Defense of the Ph.D. Dissertation

The culmination of the Ph.D. degree path is the final defense of the dissertation.  A couple of weeks before the final defense, you’ll 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’ve passed this final milestone, you’ll have earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy!

The milestones we achieve on our path to the Ph.D. degree are sometimes challenging, often exciting, and here, at the University of Iowa, they’re always designed to help you be the best independent scientist you can be.  We hope you’ll choose to join us while you travel this path!