A Ph.D. on Ph.D.'s
By Mika Ono
What is the Ph.D. experience in the sciences? That's the
question Louise McHeyzer-Williams has set out to address in
her dissertation in the field of educational anthropology.
As a research assistant at The Scripps Research Institute
(TSRI) and spouse of a principal investigator, McHeyzer-Williams
has had plenty of opportunity to see individuals in the process
of earning a Ph.D.
"Some people love every minute of it and others experience
more of a roller-coaster ride," she notes.
McHeyzer-Williams, who has undergraduate degrees in applied
sciences, nursing, and education and a master's degree in
education, began to wonder what the typical Ph.D. experience
was, what pathways students take through the doctoral process,
and what meanings students give to experiences along the way.
When she looked through the literature, McHeyzer-Williams
found studies on Ph.D.'s in the humanities, recollections
of mature scientists, and recommendations from government
agencies on Ph.D. programsbut virtually no studies of
the experience of earning the science Ph.D.
McHeyzer-Williams recognized the lack of data as a research
"There are 28,000 Ph.D.'s awarded each year in the sciences,"
she says, "and graduate school is the point where individuals
make the transition from being consumers to producers of knowledge.
It seemed like a worthwhile topic."
McHeyzer-Williams began formulating the project with her
advisor, educationalist Lyn Yates of University of Technology
at Sydney in Australia, McHezyer-William's country of origin.
McHeyzer-Williams decided to use a methodology typical for
anthropology: she would observe, interview, and interpret
to the best of her ability, while remaining cognizant of her
own role in the study.
"Traditionally, anthropologists go and tell the story, say,
of a tribe in New Guinea," she says. "The tribe I am studying
is a group of Ph.D. candidates."
McHeyzer-Williams recruited 40 graduate students in biology
to participate in the study. While they are all in the process
of pursuing their Ph.D.'s at the same institution, the participants
are in different years of study, have different backgrounds,
are of different nationalities, and are both male and female.
Every three to four months over the period of a year, McHeyzer-Williams
is asking the students:
- What led you to be doing a Ph.D. in science?
- Tell me about your experience during your Ph.D. education.
- Where do you see yourself in the future?
In addition, she is observing the students as they participate
in seminars, courses, and even happy hours. "The only place
I don't observe them is in the lab," she notes. "It's pretty
hard to maintain the confidentiality of the participants if
I show up regularly at their bench."
By this summer, McHeyzer-Williams hopes the data collection
will be complete, so she can begin to identify key themes
within the stories of individual students', among first, second,
third, fourth, and fifth-year candidates, and within groups
of students with similar backgrounds.
"The information I'm collecting should be useful for looking
at ways to improve a science graduate program from the students'
perspective," McHeyzer-Williams says. She hopes to publish
the results in journals in both the fields of anthropology
And how is McHeyzer-Williams's own Ph.D. experience going?
"I love it!" she says. "I couldn't wish for more. [The institution
I'm working with] has been very responsive and supportive.
Most importantly, the students are fabulous. They are busy,
but willing to give to the study. They are honest and open.
I come away inspired."