The process of the Ph.D.

The course of a Ph.D. is a strange one. You hopefully get into it because you enjoy learning and you want to do research. Possibly you are capable of one of those and want to do the other. Whatever. Either way, it’s a very personal experience, driven primarily by yourself and your interests.

Your research is anchored to one primary requirement: to contribute something to the scientific community. Obviously the primary drive at the start is to gobsmack the world with your sheer brilliance, to make your mark on science, to discover some new fundamental truth, and graduate in record time. Everybody’s entitled to that phase; after all, you never know.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, we know this isn’t how most Ph.D.s go. “A contribution” can be surprisingly small, often depressingly so. But over time you come to realise that the requirement of contribution is anchored to two important desires, much more important than “fame”: first, the desire to contribute in a way that you hope will be acceptable to your review panel; second, the desire to contribute something that you find interesting. This is, after all, presumably why you got into things in the first place. The former is most important if you care for an easy life; the latter is important if you care for personal fulfilment.

And here is why: you’re going to be working on this for roughly four years of your life. A Ph.D. is one of life’s few opportunities to work relatively freely from interference. Also, if you get to the end of your degree and you still enjoy what you were working on, or have a bag full of ideas for “when you have time,” then congratulations. That’s the primary indicator of whether you were born for your field, or if your Ph.D. is as far as you want to take your academic career. If you get to the end and you aren’t horribly bitter and twisted, itching to get out, then the academic community might decide to keep you around.

So, interest is a primary driver. This interest drives you to learn, and by continuously learning you ultimately also learn where the boundary of human knowledge lies. From the perspective of the review panel, demonstrating crystal clear perception of how far human knowledge goes in your particular field is of the utmost importance.

But there’s a hidden process in getting to this point, and I find it quite interesting.

When you enter from an undergraduate perspective, you think you might know everything about anything, but that’s generally far from the truth. You know a lot, granted, or you wouldn’t have gotten funding. But what many undergraduates have is a broad-strokes picture of things. This is a blissful, innocent phase, where if you want to know more you go read about it.

In this context, everything in the universe feels knowable, because you haven’t yet reached the boundary of human knowledge. The Ph.D. must break you out of this mentality. You will not pass if you continue to think this way. If you do not find the boundary, then you will never be broken.

On your way toward your Ph.D. (which you’ll surely get because you’re pretty smart, right?), you read. You read a lot. You read hundreds of papers every year. Then you read some more. Reading papers is interesting because, apart from a rare few, many cover tiny incremental steps representing one more chunk of the puzzle. Many you can discard immediately. You learn how to rip out the key points of anything you read quickly, to determine in a few minutes whether this piece of paper in front of you that somebody poured months of their life into answers any of your questions. During this time, you refine your questions, and repeat. Refinement followed by reading followed by refinement followed by reading. This phase involves constantly banging your head off the boundary of human knowledge, sometimes without realising it. Still used to answers being available, this is a confusing phase. “Surely somebody did this before? Seems obvious to me.

During this phase, you hopefully find a crack in the boundary and start working on something without being told to by your supervision team. This is something you decide to fill in yourself, and realise that possibly you could write about it too. Something you can do so that we know just a little bit more than we did yesterday.

But ultimately, the process of the Ph.D. is to break you down and rebuild you into a being who does not expect that certain knowledge is already known, does not feel that somebody must have already found such answers, to arrive at a point where you have an intuitive sense of what has and has not already been achieved. The Ph.D. teaches you how to parse what little information is known in such a way that you can determine whether you need to discover the unknowable. Or prove the as-yet unknown. Or verify the assumptions of others. You earn, through hard labour, sharp criticality of other people’s work. And hopefully of your own, too.

So you start the Ph.D. with much to learn. You finish the Ph.D. with an acute awareness of what is unknown. This, to me, is the single most important point of the whole process. Your Ph.D. becomes your license to go fill in those blanks.

As an aside, scepticism helps the break/rebuild process. The sceptic does not need to be broken down quite so far. Every time the sceptic hits the wall, shrug, “Figures.” The sceptic is quite comfortable in academia, because the sceptic works on the glass-half-empty principle. The sceptic has the in-built ability to detect when he’s read a half-truth. He understands how to interpret words in the least positive, but still truthful, manner, and can determine from that what the author of the text is not saying. This is an important skill not only when scanning the literature for prior work in an area, but also when reviewing papers. Ultimately, in the breaking process, the sceptic reads to the boundary of knowledge, and is capable of realising that nobody knows what the sceptic wants to know.

Shrug. Figures.

But the sceptic is equally pleased when he does find what he’s looking for. The sceptic is content to forever scrape boundary of knowledge, lifted by occasional moments of joy when he finds the information he seeks. The sceptic’s playground is this knowledge boundary.

I am something of a sceptic. I feel that this has made me amenable to much of the Ph.D. process.


Posted by Stephen Strowes on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010. You can follow me on twitter.

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