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Three PhD Students Who Reclassified Explain the Hows and Whys

March 1, 2008


By Laura Pratt

After 18 months in some graduate programs, students can prepare a PhD proposal instead of a graduate thesis and present it to a panel. If the proposal is accepted, the student enters the PhD program. As it generally takes about three years to complete a medical science graduate program without reclassifying, this process saves students about a year. Melissa Nock (who’s developing an X-ray imaging technique for the early detection of cancer in women with radiographically dense breasts, and completed her reclass process in August of 2007), Rachel Chan (whose research project is focused on developing techniques that could improve magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] in the breast cancer screening of high-risk patients and who decided to reclassify last February) and Colleen Bailey (who’s studying the detection of cell death in cancer patients using MRI and completed her reclass exam this past December) are SRI students who went this route. Here, they offer some advice for others considering the same journey.

What’s your advice for other students thinking of reclassifying?

Nock: Talk it over with your supervisor and supervisory committee. Read through your graduate student handbook carefully for the details of what’s involved.

Chan: Consult as many graduate students as possible.

What are the advantages to reclassifying?

Bailey: You’re expanding on your old project, so the learning curve isn’t as steep in reading background information, finding useful people and learning experimental techniques. 

Chan: By reclassifying, students can work on more extensive projects, investigate their projects in much more detail, gain more experience in the field, and possibly, save some time by not writing a master's thesis. 

Nock: Reclassifying means you can finish your graduate studies a little faster—you have some momentum and don’t have to take the time to get a new project going, and you can use results obtained during your master’s studies toward your PhD thesis. Although, you don’t get experience in writing and defending a thesis, you lose the flexibility of changing projects/schools/supervisors between your master’s and doctorate and you don’t have a master’s degree to add to your CV.

What’s the best way to undertake a reclassification?

Bailey: Talk to your supervisor, other PIs and PhD students about your work. Ask whether they think what you’re proposing makes sense and has the potential to be a successful PhD project.

Chan: Start early on writing the reclassification proposal because it usually takes a lot more time than expected. It took me about a week just to write the first draft (which ended up being approximately 40 pages including figures). Your committee members will read it and suggest some changes to the draft, then you’ll need to revise it before submitting the final version.

What’s the secret to surviving the extra workload?

Nock: Embrace the responsibilities by looking at each as a new learning experience that will better your skills as a researcher. Away from the lab, physical activity is a great outlet.

Bailey: Prioritize everything. Make sure you believe in your project so the work feels worthwhile. And have some balance with non-work events so it doesn’t get too overwhelming. Having a life outside the hospital reminds me that if, for example, it turns out a contrast agent isn’t doing what I first thought, it's only a very tiny point in the grand scheme of things.

What are some common mistakes to avoid in choosing to reclassify?

Nock: Don’t leave the decision too late. Writing a good proposal can be a long process and coordinating the schedules of six professors to be on your examination committee can be a difficult task.

Bailey: Making sure that the project is suitable for a PhD is the biggest thing. Also, I went over an outline and several drafts of the proposal with my supervisor before taking it to my supervisory committee, but I think that I probably should have cleared the outline with my supervisory committee before I started writing, just to have everyone’s advice in my head from the start.

Chan: Thinking that reclassification will lead to faster graduation—it might not, depending on the project, so this shouldn't be the only reason for reclassifying.