Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hindsight Reflections on the Ph.D. Degree

Matt Might's Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

If you have a Ph.D., or are pursuing one, you have likely come across the above illustrated guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might. I was reminded of this model today when a friend of mine posted it on Facebook. I think Might's model is an excellent depiction of the process of getting a Ph.D., but more in a prescriptive sense than in a descriptive way. It is not a good descriptive model, because I have read quite a few doctoral theses that were nothing more than a rehash of the existing body of knowledge and provided absolutely no new insights about the phenomena they were purportedly about. Such theses often tend to be from universities with poor standards, but periodically you also stumble on theses from top universities which are of abysmally poor quality. The problem is that the system that grants the Ph.D. degree, like most other systems, is not a foolproof system. Consequently, many people get the coveted degree without coming even close to the boundary of existing knowledge, forget making any dent to it or even attempting to push it. Nonetheless, I love Might's model because it beautifully underscores a goal that doctoral students should aspire for. No wonder, he uses it every Fall semester to inspire the fresh batches of Ph.D. students at his university.

The day I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis in front of my dissertation committee was truly one of the happiest days of my life. First, it meant that all those years of hard work had finally payed off. Second, it was gratifying that my committee, which literally consisted of living legends in the field of organizational behavior, lavishly praised the quality of my work. One of the esteemed members on my committee even went to the extent of commenting, "This is how a dissertation should look like." Lest you think otherwise, let me make it clear that I'm not here to shower praise on my own doctoral thesis. In fact, with the wisdom of hindsight, I don't think much of my dissertation at all. Although there is nothing like a limitation-free research paper, I feel that my dissertation had way too many limitations than would be acceptable to me, if I were conducting the same studies now. In this sense, my Ph.D. work did push boundaries of knowledge, but primarily my own. Alas, I can't say with confidence if my work pushed the boundary of human knowledge!

If a Ph.D. degree from a top university is a definite sign that one made a tiny dent into the boundary of human knowledge, then I might have. But as I delve deeper into the topics on which I have conducted my research, I am also confronted with the reality that the insights gained from these studies were not necessarily "brand new" that no one had ever talked about before. As the English mathematician and philospher, Alfred North Whitehead is known to have said, "Everything important has been said before." So did I really make a dent to the boundary of human knowledge with my doctoral research? It would be hubris to believe that I did. Perhaps it is pretentious of anyone who believes that s/he succeeded in making a dent, however tiny, to the boundary of human knowledge with just his/her Ph.D. degree. Sure there are greats like John Nash, whose short, 28-page doctoral dissertation from 1950 later earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics (1994), but not all of us are John Nash. Even for Nash, the dent was too tiny in the beginning to be immediately recognized by other researchers. Hell, it took 44 years for the Nobel Committee to be sure that his dissertation work had made a real dent to the field of economics! So, below is an illustration of how my perception of the Ph.D. degree has changed over the couple of years since I got mine.


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