What does a Ph.D. mean, anyway?

Dec 29 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

I was inspired by the January Scientiae theme, which is "as one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes." I myself have encountered many such doorway choices that I won't go into now. But I recently had to be ultimately responsible for a choice like this for someone else, and I was/am extremely uncomfortable with having to make this decision at this stage in my experience--however, I do think it ended up as the right thing for the person, and hopefully this post will help me flesh out why I can trust this for myself.

I have no idea what I really know about any of this, other than having gone through grad school and watched a few other people do it. On the near-eve of my first real year of helping people through this process I have been pensive. Pensive about what a Ph.D. is really all about and how I can presume to have any idea of how to make decisions about whether someone should be doing a Ph.D. or not. It's not a complete crisis of confidence, because when I really think about it I think I DO have a pretty good idea of what it should be about, and I have some reasonably mature perceptive skills that I think will allow me to get to know people deeply enough to help them find their path. (BTW: We'll all laugh at my hubris whenever I come back to this saying "OMFG, what the hell was I thinking? I have no idea what I am doing..." right?)

But really, as intangible as it is (besides the heaviness of a thesis), I do think there is a way to describe what a Ph.D. is really all about. It's about more than being smart (brilliant even), being good in the lab, being able to plan and perform experiments--it's even about more than being dedicated and wanting it (or thinking you do) more than anything else. All of these things are required, but there's something else that comes together in the full process of a Ph.D. and it needs to encompass all of them plus a special quality of independence and leadership that must emerge from the way you put together all the parts:

Notice how the Ph.D. is brown, because of all the crap you go through to get it.

Yes, it is a special thing. It is a desirable thing, this degree. It's an exceptional thing, that not just anybody should be able to do. That is what makes it a valuable degree, and why people put themselves through some hell to get there. BUT it is not the only way to personal and professional success, in science or the rest of the world.

It also does not necessarily groom and point someone right in the direction of leading an academic lab. There are many, many other productive, constructive, amazingly enjoyable, high-pressure, cutting-edge ways to use a Ph.D--but that's a topic for another blog and another time.

Nope, a Ph.D. (even for somebody who has been working on getting one) is not necessarily the best way to go. There are things you can only find out about yourself during a process like graduate school, and so it is almost always still worth the experience. But not "making it" through DOES NOT have to be a failure. It should be an opportunity to find out what your true skills and strengths are, and how to maximize them and strategize around your weaknesses. The door should open to learning what you do and do not enjoy about your work, and do and do not feel are the "real you" and what you can really do. Sometimes that means you end up opening the subsequent door that takes you through to what a Ph.D. can offer you in your future, but sometimes that means you need to decide to leave the Ph.D. door closed and try one of the other ones in that foyer. So many grad students never even know those other doors are there! They miss them because of the blinders they have on for the track in front of them. But that track means NOTHING if it doesn't make you truly happy (in some part of your body/heart) and doesn't lead to something that fits your skills.

It's true that you close that door, that maybe was kind of left half open by your PI/department before you were really ready (and maybe irresponsibly, since they really are supposed to help guide people to the right doors not just try to push them all through the same one... or open it and leave, and see who of the people dropped in the shark pit make it to the other side...). But you open up a lot of other doors that lead to doors and doors. The philosphical opportunity given to every grad student is to get trained in some science and look closely at themselves, and the next part has to come from the student her/himself: to decide honestly and candidly if they can really put together all the parts of that Venn diagram I made, and if those things would really get them to a place where they would USE them to their full advantage and cosmically justify all the investment put into developing them (by themselves and their mentors). So, deciding not to go through that door and letting it close can be the most important, liberating chance that ever came along (other than the chance to learn that much about yourself in the first place). It does NOT need to be a failure--it should be able to become an opportunity.

I hope that if there is ANYTHING useful I can offer to my students beyond a space in the lab and some money to do stuff, it can be a realistic and honest outlook on how to find where you can add value to your own life and the world in ways that don't necessarily mean following "the track." While still maintaining my desire and responsibility to promote excellence in training graduate students, and inspiring people to find the joy in being a Ph.D. scientist (I know that will make a lot of you laugh).

7 responses so far

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    I totally disagree that only those individuals that possess all three of the character traits you describe should put in the time and effort to earn their PhDs. People who reside in the double-overlap regions of your diagram can still benefit tremendously from having a PhD, in terms of personal satisfaction, career advancement, and ability to earn a good living. If you only possess one of those character traits, then a PhD is probably not for you.

  • Arlenna says:

    No, I actually agree with you about who should still be going for it--I guess I wasn't very clear about what I mean with the diagram. The diagram is supposed to represent what people are striving to put together in a Ph.D. and illustrate the various parts that have to come together by the end--not what character traits you must start out with or you're hopeless. The overlapping parts are supposed to be showing how the ultimate uses of a Ph.D. can be different for different people depending on what they want out of their lives. You still HAVE to be able to do all of those things to some degree in order to get there though: you have to be able to think analytically, design AND PERFORM experiments that demonstrate your thinking, and tell other people about what you thought and what you did in both writing and presentation form.It is your program's and your mentors' job to help train you into being good at those things, and your own job to do your very best to achieve them in as many aspects as you possibly can. If you or they are not doing that, then I don't think it gets you where you want to be and you either need to find a different Ph.D. program or move on to try something else with your life that you CAN put your all into.

  • Al Anine says:

    I think one of my biggest fears and maybe of other graduate students as well is "What if I work hard and do well but still don't wind up with a decent faculty position?". The question that always nags me is "How does one succeed in science?". People have shown that if you attend a great university you have a good chance at success such as over at http://incoherently-scattered.blogspot.com/ . Some people say it is luck or the ability to back stab and and climb a social ladder. Things such as doing great research are only partially my fault but also the fault of my mentor. I guess I won't find out until I start applying for jobs.

  • Arlenna says:

    Al Anine, I started responding in the comments here and decided to just write you a whole 'nother post!

  • sillyconservationist says:

    I used to think that I was one of those grad students who have found themselves a comfort zone and then decided that it would be best to stay in school.That wasn't the best thought, though I have grown out of it. But unfortunately, many people still see "grad school" as the "safety net" that they can safely fall into whenever.But now, I am seriously considering a Ph.D., and I know that with some training, I will be able to think and work like a researcher. The key word here I guess, is to practice 😀

  • Ms.PhD says:

    I like this part:Notice how the Ph.D. is brown, because of all the crap you go through to get it.But you left out the street smarts.And I agree, these are things you can ACQUIRE during your PhD/postdoc years. You don't have to have them all when you start out.

  • Anonymous says:

    "Notice how the Ph.D. is brown, because of all the crap you go through to get it."If it looks like a crap, if it smells like a crap, if it quacks like a crap ...

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