Skip to Main Content

We have a new app!

Take the Access library with you wherever you go—easy access to books, videos, images, podcasts, personalized features, and more.

Download the Access App here: iOS and Android. Learn more here!

About Jared Hinkle and Chirag Vasavda

Jared Hinkle entered the MD-PhD program at Johns Hopkins University in 2015 and joined the Department of Neuroscience graduate program in 2017. He is conducting his PhD thesis research in the laboratories of Drs. Ted and Valina Dawson and is currently investigating how glial cells respond to fibrillar α-synuclein in Parkinson disease.

Chirag Vasavda entered the MD-PhD program at Johns Hopkins University in 2014. He joined the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology graduate program and studied under Dr. Solomon Snyder in the Department of Neuroscience. In graduate school, he discovered that the heme metabolite bilirubin binds and activates the orphan receptor MRGPRX4 in itch sensory neurons, potentially contributing to itch in hepatobiliary disease. He also identified that bilirubin is a physiologic antioxidant with distinct redox activity that negatively regulates superoxide signaling during neurotransmission.


In order to complete the PhD phase of your training, you will need to conduct a systematic research study under the guidance of the principal investigator (PI) of your research lab. Students identify a PI through their research rotations, as discussed in Chapter 9, and make the official decision to join a PI’s laboratory or research group sometime early in the PhD program. Unlike the predefined coursework of the preclinical medical school curriculum or core graduate school coursework, the PhD thesis project is not a curated experience. Rather, each student works with their PI to identify the topic of the thesis research project and to articulate a strategy for the investigation. This chapter addresses the nature of this process, its relationship to your scientific training, and some general guidelines for successfully identifying a feasible PhD project.


  • PhD projects are defined in close collaboration with your PI through an iterative process, typically over the first 3–12 months after joining the lab. However, a PhD thesis is never completely defined until it is in fact complete—it is an evolutionary process with stages of stability and periods of revision.

  • Topically and methodologically, PhD projects tend to fall close to the core interests of the laboratory head and previous work the lab has done. However, there is no formulaic one-size-fits-all approach for PIs and graduate students in defining a project.

  • Preliminary data are essential to demonstrating the plausibility of your hypotheses and will likely become integrated into your proposal for thesis work.

  • A combination of high-risk-high-reward and more easily achieved projects is often ideal.

  • Your thesis committee will help you to shape the thesis project as you progress and ultimately decide when your research is sufficient to earn the PhD degree.

An Ever-Changing Timeline

While completing research rotations, MD-PhD students learn about the kind of investigations they might conduct in the lab and will most likely discuss project ideas with prospective mentors. Once the decision to join a ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.