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Careers in robotics: What’s a robotics PhD?

This comparatively normal submit focuses on robotics-related PhD packages within the American academic system. A lot of this is not going to apply to universities in different international locations, or to different departments in American universities. This submit will take you thru the general life cycle of a PhD and is meant as a primary overview for anybody unfamiliar with the method, whether or not they’re contemplating a PhD or have a beloved one who’s at present in a PhD program and simply wish to study extra about what they’re doing. 

The fundamentals

A PhD (doctoral diploma) in engineering or a DEng (Doctorate of Engineering) is the very best diploma that you would be able to earn in engineering. That is usually a level that individuals solely earn one in every of, in the event that they earn one in any respect. Not like a bachelor’s diploma or a grasp’s diploma, a PhD learning a subject related to robotics needs to be free and college students ought to obtain a modest stipend for his or her residing bills. There are only a few stand-alone robotics PhDs packages, so folks usually be a part of robotics labs by way of PhD packages in electrical engineering, pc science, or mechanical engineering. 

Becoming a member of a lab

In some packages, college students are matched with a lab when they’re accepted to the college. This matching just isn’t random: If a college works this manner, a professor has to have an area of their lab, see the appliance, and determine that the scholar could be a great match for his or her lab. Primarily, the professor “hires” the scholar to affix their lab. 

Different packages settle for cohorts of scholars who take programs within the first few years and choose professors to work with by some deadline in this system. The mechanism by way of which college students and professors pair up is often rotations: College students carry out a small analysis venture in every of a number of labs after which be a part of one of many labs they rotated in. 

The advisor

No matter how a scholar will get matched up with their advisor, the advisor has numerous energy to make their graduate college expertise a optimistic one or a destructive one. Somebody who is a superb advisor for one scholar might not be an ideal advisor for one more. In case you are selecting an advisor, it pays to concentrate to the tradition in a lab, and whether or not you personally really feel supported by that atmosphere and the kind of mentorship that your advisor affords. In nearly each case, that is extra essential to your success within the PhD program than the specifics of the venture you’ll work on or the status of the venture, collaborators, or lab. 


PhD packages usually have qualifiers sooner or later within the first three years. Some packages use a test-based qualifier system, both creating a selected qualifier take a look at or utilizing exams from remaining exams of required programs. In some packages, you’re examined by a panel of school who ask the scholar questions on course materials that they’re anticipated to have realized by this level. In different packages, the scholar performs a analysis venture after which presents it to a panel of school. 

Some universities view the qualifiers as a hurdle that nearly the entire admitted PhD college students ought to have the ability to cross, and a few universities view them as a way to weed out college students from the PhD program. In case you are contemplating making use of to PhD packages, it’s value being attentive to this cultural distinction between packages, and never taking it too personally if you don’t cross the qualifiers at a college that weeds out half of their college students. In any case, you had been certified sufficient to be accepted. It’s also essential to recollect, should you be a part of both sort of program, that if you don’t cross your qualifiers, often what occurs is that you simply depart this system with a free grasp’s diploma. Your time in this system is not going to be wasted!

The writer testing a robotic on a steep dune face on a analysis discipline journey at Oceano Dunes.


Some advisors will begin college students on a analysis venture as quickly as they be a part of the lab, usually by attaching them to an present venture in order that they’ll get a little bit mentorship earlier than beginning their very own venture. Some advisors will wait till the scholar is completed with qualifiers. Both manner, it’s value realizing {that a} PhD scholar’s relationship to their PhD venture is probably going completely different from any venture they’ve ever been concerned with earlier than. 

For another analysis venture, there’s one other particular person – the advisor, an older graduate scholar, a submit doc – who has designed the venture or at the least labored with the scholar to provide you with parameters for fulfillment. The scope of earlier analysis tasks would usually be one semester or one summer time, leading to one or two papers at most. In distinction, a PhD scholar’s analysis venture is predicted to span a number of years (at the least three), ought to end in a number of publications, and is designed primarily by the scholar. It’s not simply that the scholar has possession over their venture, however that they’re chargeable for it in a manner that they’ve by no means been chargeable for such a big open-ended venture earlier than. It’s also their major duty – not one venture alongside many others. This may be overwhelming for lots of scholars, which is why it’s rude to ask a PhD scholar how for much longer they count on their PhD to take. 

The committee

The “committee” is a gaggle of professors that work in a associated space to the scholar’s. Their advisor is on the committee, but it surely should embody different professors as nicely. Sometimes, college students have to have a mixture of professors from their college and at the least one different establishment. These professors present ongoing mentorship on the thesis venture. They’re the first viewers for the thesis proposal and protection, and can finally determine what’s adequate for the scholar to do so as to graduate. In case you are a scholar selecting your committee, understand that you’ll profit significantly from having supportive professors in your committee, identical to you’ll profit from having a supportive advisor. 

Proposing and defending the thesis

When college students are anticipated to suggest a thesis venture varies extensively by program. In some packages, college students suggest a subject as a part of their qualifier course of. In others, college students have years after ending their qualifiers to suggest a subject – and may suggest as little as a semester earlier than they defend! 

The proposal and protection each usually take the type of a presentation adopted by questions from the committee and the viewers. Within the proposal, the scholar outlines the venture they plan to do, and presents standards that they and their committee ought to agree on because the required minimal for them to do so as to graduate. The protection makes the case that the scholar has hit these necessities. 

After the scholar presents, the committee will ask them some questions, will confer, after which will both inform the scholar that they handed or failed. It is vitally unusual for a PhD scholar to fail their protection, and it’s usually thought of a failure on the a part of the advisor reasonably than the scholar if this occurs, as a result of the advisor shouldn’t have let the scholar current an unfinished thesis. After the protection, there could also be some corrections to the written thesis doc or perhaps a few further experiments, however usually the scholar doesn’t have to current their thesis once more so as to graduate.

The underside line

A PhD is a protracted coaching course of to show college students the best way to turn into impartial researchers. College students will take courses and carry out analysis, and also will seemingly educate or develop coursework. If that is one thing you’re enthusiastic about, it’s essential to study what you may be getting your self into – and if it’s a journey one in every of your family members is beginning on, you must know that it’s not simply extra college!


Sonia Roberts
postdoc at Northeastern learning delicate sensors

Ladies In Robotics
is a worldwide group for ladies working in robotics, or who aspire to work in robotics

Ladies In Robotics
is a worldwide group for ladies working in robotics, or who aspire to work in robotics



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