The end of the Ph.D adventure

Dec ,15 2016

It is over. I am finally a Doctor in Philosophy!

It has been a long journey, 3 intense years full of emotions and achievements. Time flies and to be honest, it seems like yesterday when I moved to Dublin. In this blog I would like to share my personal experience and thoughts regarding the last months I spent as a PhD student in the viral evasion group of Andrew Bowie at Trinity College Dublin.

The last few months
December 2015, my last lab meeting before Christmas break and the moment when I realized the clock was against me.

During the lab meeting, I presented my findings and made a brief summary of my whole data set trying to highlight the main results and new discoveries of my research. The original plan was to finish the experiments before Christmas and start writing my thesis in January. As usual, things change and a “brief” list of “to do experiments” was made during my last lab meeting in order to have a complete story in my thesis. At the beginning I thought it was a good idea, easy to be done, then I start panicking due to the fact that I had just 3 months left for writing a thesis while I was still working in the lab.


Writing up

January to February….two months for writing up my thesis draft and performing some few key experiments, whereas March was dedicated to final corrections and putting together the thesis chapters.

A big help came from the fact that I already wrote a transfer report at the end of the second year of my PhD, therefore I used this document as a starting point for my thesis draft. My thesis consisted of six chapters: Introduction, Material & Methods, Results (I, II, III) and final discussion, together with an abstract and two appendices. I started with the update of the Introduction. The text has been organized in several small sections and paragraphs in order to make the readers able to understand general aspects about immunology and specific papers were also reported for the concepts related to my project. Material & Methods was the easy chapter to write up, even if I spent a full day double checking drug concentrations, primer sequences and suppliers used. The three results chapters were rearranged with new figures and constantly updated with the results of the “to do experiment” list made in December. Each results chapter was composed of small subchapters: a brief introduction (to highlight the main concepts), a results session where the findings obtained in the different figures were described in detail and a discussion for interpreting and comparing the results with other data present in the literature. The final discussion chapter is a summary of main data, ideas and concepts analyzed in each result chapter and it was an easy task. I have to admit that writing up a thesis is a very stressful time and sometimes I was happy to leave my chair in the reading room and go back to the lab to perform some experiments in the tissue culture. I also have to thank my boss Andrew Bowie for the quick correction of my thesis draft and his patience with my writing structure. Finally, at the end of March, all the chapters were ready and the thesis was submitted on time!

Thesis defence
Friday 13th, what a great and lucky day to discuss my thesis!

Thesis defence at Trinity is dived in two main parts: an oral presentation to the public and a closed-door discussion of the thesis with two examiners. I had time to prepare myself for the defence but, when the time came, I was quite nervous. The presentation was at 10.30 am and it was supposed to last for one hour (45 minutes presentation and 10 minutes questions). I managed to present my work in 30 minutes roughly, despite feeling that it took much longer. I spoke very fast, however people told me I clearly explained my data and the summary graphs helped to understand and point out the main results and key conclusions. At the end of my presentation there was time for a few questions from other PhD students and Post-docs in the audience but the real discussion was just about to begin. After 10 minutes break, the closed-door session started with myself defending my thesis and two examiners with the task of verifying my knowledge and commenting on my results and conclusions. The atmosphere was very positive because both the examiners liked my thesis and also the presentation. We went through every single chapter of my thesis. The introduction required more bibliography and some additional specific papers to be mentioned while material and methods was generally complete. However, the main discussion was focused on the result chapters. The examiners were impressed by the amount of significant data produced in only three years, calculating also the 4 month internship I attended in Belfast. Generally, they agreed about my conclusions, but some data must be supported by additional experiments in order to make the story stronger and with a higher scientific impact. The defence session went on for four hours, however we also had two coffee breaks and a lunch break in the meantime. Although it was a very long exam, I was happy to answer to questions and explain why I decided to perform an experiment instead of another. The examiners were interested on by my data and the discussion was very useful for all of us. Their point of view helped to figure out alternative approaches to some issues I had during my project and I learned to think more criticality about my own data. At the end of my defence the examiners took some minutes to decide about my performance. The final verdict was: “Congratulations you are a Doctor in Philosophy”. I was very excited and satisfied but also exhausted, however the day was not over yet, celebrations were mandatory!

Celebrations

After a few drinks on the balcony of my department, myself and my lab team went to the pitch field of Trinity because the sun was shining and it was an occasion that cannot be missed. It was nice and relaxing having a pint on the grass before moving to the restaurant for dinner. The celebrations went on until late and during the weekend. I realized that I finally finished my PhD only in the following days.




Job Hunting

Next step? Looking for a new job but I will write about this in the next blog.