Reflections about PhDs on the eve of a defence

Despite my noble intentions with respect to this blog, I have been largely unsuccessful at adding content. There are many reasons for this, such as the aggressive teaching and publishing deadlines from last semester. However, a big part of the reason for this is my looming thesis defence, due to happen tomorrow at 10:00 am. I thought it would be fitting to reflect a bit on what it means to do a PhD and what the last four years have entailed, in hindsight.

Having done more than my fair share of university degrees, I can attest to how the PhD is quite different from the others. There are clear financial reasons for pursuing Masters or professional programs. However, in many disciplines PhDs often come with few financial rewards. According to the US Census Bureau, in many fields with robust professional programs (i.e. Business or Law), median earnings among PhD holders are lower than their professional counterparts (i.e. MBA, JD). When one considers that the opportunity cost of doing a PhD 3 to 7 years of productive labour, it becomes clear that the motivation for doing a PhD is often not financial.  Realistically, the PhD only equips students to do one thing: make a substantial contribution of research to the academic community in the discipline students have decided to pursue. Though some PhDs also require students to gain teaching experience, this is not mandatory in all PhD programs.  When it is mandatory, students could expect to spend hundreds of hours teaching a course or working as a teaching assistant. This is small compared to the thousands of hours spent cultivating research.

The best analogy of a PhD that I have yet encountered was written by Tad Waddington in Lasting Contribution. His quote reads:

The last step of the [education] process is to contribute to knowledge, which is unlike the previous steps. Elementary school is like learning to ride a tricycle. High school is like learning to ride a bicycle. College is like learning to drive a car. A master’s degree is like learning to drive a race car. Students often think that the next step is more of the same, like learning to fly an airplane. On the contrary, the Ph.D. is like learning to design a new car. Instead of taking in more knowledge, you have to create knowledge. You have to discover (and then share with others) something that nobody has ever known before.

When I first read this quote three years ago, it stuck with me. I had the good fortune of having pursued two master’s degrees before starting my PhD and had originally thought that the PhD would be like a more advanced version of the previous two. Looking back, I don’t believe that was the case, and agree with Waddington more than ever. If you are considering ever doing a PhD, I recommend that you should be the sort of person who enjoys spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy to make a difficult, small, yet very real contribution to human knowledge.

It’s been a pleasure to have the opportunity to pursue and cultivate interdisciplinary research which I feel truly does break down barriers between disciplines. It has been challenging and at times grueling, but also rewarding, and I believe I have come out a better person. I would like to thank everyone for supporting me through the journey. I wouldn’t do it any differently if I could do it all again.

5 Replies to “Reflections about PhDs on the eve of a defence”

  1. Way to go, Colin! You have made a difference already, and have created some of the most interesting and engaging conversations. Best wishes for your successful defence.

    1. Thanks Megann! The defence went well. I am going to write a followup in the next few days.

  2. Congratulations, Colin. And best wishes as you take all the steps to “tenure” and beyond that.

  3. A helpful distinction between masters and PhD programs. I always thought I was bound for a PhD and then stopped after a masters. I always find it difficult to explain why I think research is worthwhile. So many people say “isn’t that kind of obscure” or “how is that relevant.” But the value of contributing to a body of collective knowledge is hard to quantify. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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