The Road To the Fire

By Peter Dearden 14/09/2010 2


SM Morgan.

We talk a lot about people doing their PhD without considering that to a vast majority of people — the term means very little other than ‘something scary hard, a bit intelligent and a little impressive’.

I remember being at high school, (a wee, but brilliant, girls’ boarding school in Havelock North) and being impressed with the science teachers come graduation — they had no fluff on the hoods of their gowns. Obviously a sign of vast intelligence and extra tertiary study above and beyond the average English teacher’s degree (I stereotype deliberately, bear with me!). Upon enquiry we discovered the lack of fluff or stripe was due to one holding a Masters degree, and an extra two years of research at varsity.

Of course way back then, 2 years seemed a ridiculously long time — looking back I laugh — after 7 years at Uni two years pass without blinking, and I still have so far to go!

That was the beginning of my knowledge of University degree structure — some teachers had ‘more’ than others, some degrees took longer, and some had a research component. ‘Research’ being a mythical term not easily comprehended. My understanding of the higher degrees did not come till mid way through my second year of a Bachelor of Science degree. I knew what you could get, but not what you had to do to earn it.

I decided it was time to find out exactly how I would go about getting that Doctorate (it was in the plan from the beginning, despite my lack of understanding. I think I found out it was the ‘highest’ degree you could get when I was young — and decided to get it because of that) and went to see the Genetics Senior Teaching Fellow (kind of a head tutor — they coordinate labs, mark exams, do massive amounts of paper work and answer all of your subject related questions). I was under the impression that a PhD was getting a paper published — you hear all about them, you learn from them, you read them — and you hear horror stories about how hard they are to get/write/publish. The TF showed me her thesis, which was about the size of a big phonebook, and I’m sure my face drained of colour.

So — to prevent loss of face-blood in the next generation, the basic run down of university degrees proceeds thusly:

The Bachelors Degree. This has become your basic workhorse of university. Every man and his dog go to uni after Year 13 to do a degree in one of the basic areas: Arts, Science, and Commerce. I generalise of course, you can go here and read the full list — at Otago University there are 34 different types of Bachelor’s degrees — some open entry, meaning you can get in with only ‘3 Cs’, and some more specialised which require certain marks or a first year of Health Sciences papers to be accepted into.

A Bachelors degree is generally 3 years — enough time to spend one year in a hall doing unspeakable things, a second year flatting on Castle Street doing unspeakable things, and a third year acting ‘all totally, like, mature and worldly-wise and stuff’, shaking heads at the ‘immaturity’ and naivety of the freshers.

Typically, you then go and get a ‘graduate entry’ level job where you use none of the information you learnt at uni, forget the few skills you amassed and are fully re-trained on the job. The ’sham-factory’ argument is best not had here; it might require its own full piece (something to look forward to yeah?! Ha.).

Here the specifics digress more towards the Sciences, though the general rule applies for most disciplines. After a Bachelors degree your options are to do a Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip), an Honours (Hons) degree or a Masters. PGDip and Hons are very similar in that they take a further one year, and involve both class work and a research component. Masters is a further 2 years, the first year involving class work and a small amount of research and the second year research only. A Masters degree can be dragged past the 2 year point, PGDip and Hons must be completed in the year they are started.

From your Bachelors degree you typically need very good marks to get in to an Honours program, medium-good marks for Masters and average marks for PGDip. Honours is typically noted as a ‘year from hell’ but is a fast track in to a PhD — one year compared to the 2+ years of a Masters.

It is possible to start a PhD after both Hons and Masters, though the better your marks the higher the likelihood of your being accepted. In the Honours program for example, you are ranked into ‘Classes’ based on your marks — a First Class Hons will get you in to a PhD no sweat, but a Second Class Hons will make things a bit harder.

At the end of your Honours or Masters degree you write up a Dissertation or Thesis respectively; this is a document explaining all of the experiments you did, why you did them, the results you got — and what these results mean. An Honours dissertation should be well under 100 pages, a Master’s thesis some amount over, as a rough guide.

A PhD (or Doctor of Philosophy) degree is publicised as 3 years of original research — meaning you are working on something no one else is (hopefully) and are making meaningful contributions to the subject area. In reality, the degree takes about 3.5 years for international students in NZ (being kicked out of the country at the end of a study visa is encouragement enough to finish quickly) and a bit longer for domestic students. No class work is done, and all of your time is (supposedly) spent in a laboratory or library trying to discover things no one else has before.

At the end you write up your work, hopefully publish some of your results in a good journal, and have a Viva, or oral examination. A PhD thesis is massive and typically used to hold up postdoc computer monitors — think ‘big phone book’ and you are mostly there.

This basic run-down changes from uni to uni — and from country to country. In the US, a PhD can last 5+ years — and includes classes and lab rotations at the beginning.

The story behind the different graduation gowns is somewhat mythical, and highly dependent on your host institution. At Otago for example, as I heard the story as an undergraduate, a basic Bachelors degree earns you a black gown with ‘standard’ bat-wing arms and a coloured hood with a fur trim. The colour in the hood is specific to your degree and institution, the fur is supposedly to keep you warm — since you are so far from the fires of academia. An Honours degree earns you the same gown, the same coloured hood — but white fabric trim instead of fur, since you are slightly closer to the fire, and need less warmth in your clothing.

A Masters degree earns you a special gown — still black, but with slightly more complex sleeves, the same coloured hood as the undergraduate degree in your discipline — but with no edging whatsoever.

A PhD earns you a completely different gown & hood, both maroon in colour and a Knox Bonnet hat — otherwise known as a ‘cushion’ or ‘pudding’. At this point you are so close to the fire, your clothing is reflective of its heat, and thus maroon.

Each university has their own histories and traditions behind their gowns — the universities in the States for example are well known for their bright and colourful gowns, making Otago’s Maroon robes quite dull in comparison.

If you are thinking about doing a PhD or want more information about the degrees and structures, Otago University has a very nice run down here, and the list of all the different degrees here. General graduation information can be found here.

How close can you get to the fire?!


2 Responses to “The Road To the Fire”

  • If you still have that kind of monitor then you have taken too longt!!
    A well-written explanation that I will relay to my undergrads