Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Surprising Breadth of a PhD

I recently served on the committee of a PhD student who defended their Proposal, near the end of the first year of the PhD. The student’s Proposal ended up being rated less-than-satisfactory, despite a letter grade for the graduate course somewhere in the A- / B+ range. The major reason for the requirement to edit the document and add material was a perceived lack of “thinking at the PhD level”. This is a hard to define yet widely-agreed phenomenon among the professors I have spoken with, and that attitude has certainly percolated down to post-docs and PhD students and other members of the Academy as well. I do not disagree with it, generally, though I expect to continue to argue minutiae about what is and is not included in any given specific case.

Rather than trying to do that for either boring hypothetical cases or clumsily attempt to maintain anonymity for real cases, I’d like to talk about a related issue, that of the surprising breadth of a PhD. I myself was surprised to discover that core competence and skills development as directly related to my PhD project was necessary but not sufficient for a PhD. There are obvious requirements at the start of a PhD: learn the skills for the methods, learn the knowledge of the relevant current and historical literature, collect the data, complete the analyses, write. Some aspects within that list become clear through time and are not surprising, such as requirements to gain fluency in certain software programs, or to be able to visualize one’s data in useful and insightful ways. Plus the never-ending quest to improve one’s writing abilities.

The surprise – and this is universal among PhD students in my experience – is the requirement for skills and activities (and effort and time and capacity to discuss) far outside of one’s project. “Leadership” abilities, which are extremely poorly defined and vague. “Well-rounded” qualities, which almost always appear to be irrelevant trivia or useless distractions from the “real” work. Qualitative judgements rather than quantitative evaluations, both of and by the student. And a wide range of so-called “soft” skills that go so far beyond “don’t screw things up for your labmates” and “don’t piss off your professor”.

The first reaction to this surprise, coming as it usually does on the heels of some negative evaluation, is a mixture of anger and denial. What the hell does pondering “big questions” have to do with my measurements? No, I disagree! I study X, which is completely unrelated to Y. And so forth. I’m not going to argue that everything dropped on a student in a difficult and emotionally draining committee meeting is important for this nebulous demonstration of “PhD thinking” but I do argue that some of these things are important.

Start with the negative, to get it out of the way. I have yet to read a philosophy of science piece – book, blog post, newspaper article, whatever – that I have found interesting or useful. There was a philosophy of science book on my reading list required for my first attempt at a PhD, part of my assigned work prior to my Comprehensive Exam. I read it, because it was assigned, and I took notes and tried to read it carefully because I expected to be asked questions about it during the Exam. I can’t remember if any questions directly related to that book were asked or not, but I do remember not being impressed by the book. The author spent almost the entire time discussing hypothetical situations that Galileo might have found himself in, and how his invention of the Scientific Method would have translated into some chain of logic or series of actions that this person who died several centuries ago might have carried out. It was long-winded, even at less than 200 pages, and felt entirely irrelevant. My feelings on that have not changed, but I think I’ll save dumping on philosophy of science for another time. 

On to the positive, then. The actual relevance of leadership skills and other away-from-project activities was explained to me by my PhD advisor in a context that made their utility immediately clear: scholarship applications are evaluated in a structured, pre-defined way that includes significant weight for such things. I did some activities that I found enjoyable in any case, and then happily discovered that writing about these activities was a good way to fill in a useful section on scholarship applications; I wrote a paragraph about helping to bring a public speaker to a locally-hosted conference, and another paragraph about some of my photos that have been published in a few places. I believe these two paragraphs, and others, were instrumental in my successful application for the NSERC CGS-D scholarship I was awarded.

A few years ago, Jeremy Fox requested more advice given to people at earlier stages of an academic career. I suspect he was mainly thinking of his faculty colleagues, but I just read his piece today and this concept of a surprise inside every PhD occurred to me based on my recent committee experience, which was interesting for a great many reasons beyond this.

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