You’re not born knowing what a PhD is.
That may sound painfully obvious, but the implications mean a lot for aspiring scientists.
I had a simple view of jobs as a kid. Jobs were identities, based on who you were, and you could do whatever you wanted. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was a question about identity, not training, social status, or pay.
A fireman and a doctor were two different personas, learned from role models in my life. That’s all.
Problem is, I didn’t have any scientists in my life, and I know there are still a lot of people in the same situation.
My scientist role models were Doc Emmett Brown, Bill Nye, and Beakman. For me, science was like play, and it took place in exciting environments that looked like PeeWee Herman’s playhouse. I definitely never thought about grant money.
As an adult, of course, I learned that stuff was all fantasy. Fantasy is a good thing to have in childhood, but adult life means adjusting to reality. I had to learn the hard way, and I’m still learning.
When I finally got into science — as a teenager — I found that many of my peers were from families where science or medicine was the family business. They had clear ideas about doing science from their parents, and a resilience about its challenges, just like having a flight attendant for a mother taught me to be a resilient traveler.
I, on the other hand, had to catch up. Mentally, I needed to change science from a noun to a verb. I knew about science, but to be a scientist, I had to learn how to science.
The main lessons were that science doesn’t happen quickly, and to do it right you have to be a lot more than just really informed.
Other things were new for me: the idea that a PhD is a certification that you’ve created new knowledge, the concept of stipend support, the “publish or perish” nature of academia…it was a lot.
I think back on my childhood and the reasons I became a scientist, and I realize that for people from a background like mine, there aren’t great resources that explain the realities of a career in science.
So I wrote one.
The main thing I needed to learn — not just be aware of, but really learn — was that science isn’t about the facts in the textbooks, but instead about doing things no one has ever done before and interpreting the results so that you can put new facts into those textbooks.
Even once I knew that scientists did research, it took me until high school to learn that science was 90% about new discoveries and only about 10% about teaching and public education.
I had a lot to learn, and I was lucky to have mentors who educated me not just in science, but in its culture and philosophy.
That culture and philosophy go back a long time, and they inform what a doctorate has come to mean today.
The university system was devised in the Middle Ages to deal with a growing problem: nobles were having more kids than they could support in terms of inheritance. They foisted extra kids off on the Church.
Except, the Church didn’t need a thousand unskilled priests; it needed priests and monks who could write and act as capable administrators. In a world where education was kind of a chance thing that focused on trade skills and battlefield tactics, better institutions were needed.
And so, the university was born. Young men dependent on their parents’ wealth would go there to learn clerical skills that allowed them to become independent. Hence the “bachelor” in “bachelor’s degree.” “Bachelor” once meant a young knight who had completed basic training.
The university system borrowed from the apprentice system. These “journeyman” bachelors continued their training up to where they became professional “masters.” The strict hierarchy of higher degrees still affects the etiquette and pecking order of academia today.
Masters and doctoral degrees, originally equal, meant a person was trained enough to teach. Unlike today, teaching was considered the highest pursuit a professional could have.
Second sons got into this world and worked their way up to the “Doctor of Philosophy,” or PhD, degree. This meant they were the world’s expert on a topic, and were qualified both to teach it and make new discoveries through research.
These PhDs started the academic scholarship tradition. Science itself, originally a Renaissance philosophy, was devised by those second sons.
That’s what a PhD was. How about what it is?
Now, a PhD is a first step. At the end of a PhD you’re still the world’s leading expert on your topic, but today there are additional hurdles in the way to becoming an independent scientist and teacher.
Because bachelor’s degrees are now an entry level certification, rather than a specialized and uncommon degree, it has become necessary for PhDs and Masters degrees to be more of a stepping stone than a capstone.
That means that getting a Masters or PhD only qualifies you for adjunct teaching positions, as the permanent faculty positions are occupied by people who have done postdoctoral fellowships with additional training.
Given these hurdles, science PhD students are lucky that government grants exist to cover tuition and provide a meager living stipend, or survival would be impossible. These are not good money, but they do allow you to attain a PhD without having to be the second child of an oil baron or duke.
Still, over time, the age at which a person gets a PhD has gone down, but the average age at which they can become a professor, if ever, has gone up. There is a huge gap, today about a decade long on average, during which an academic scientist has to find something to do.
That decade is a problem, and not all PhD programs adequately prepare their students for this period. A PhD has to prepare students for so many things, in fact, that it’s hard to fit preparation for career realities in between everything else.
The first two years or so of a doctorate are dedicated to making sure every student has equal basic knowledge of the degree field, bringing them up to the current cutting edge of knowledge — at least in the US and countries that use the US model.
A “qualifying,” “preliminary,” or “general” examination marks the change from this intense, varied educational period into serious preparation and focus on a thesis topic.
In the European system, the PhD begins after this phase. Students are expected to have already completed a specialized degree before trying for a PhD. In the US, the examination is usually used to decide if a student will continue, leave without a degree, or leave with a masters degree only.
This varies by program, of course, but these are the general ideas.
In most programs, during this intense period of classes, the student is usually also doing rotations through various labs, working in them while trying to choose the lab for their thesis research. So in addition to grueling classes, students are doing lots of lab work and trying to make a good impression on potential lab mates and advisors.
In other words, there isn’t a lot of time to think about career prospects. Unfortunately, though, choosing a lab should be done with consideration for what a student wishes to do in their career — years before they are even sure what they want to do. If they don’t know enough about academia, small mistakes here can cause larger problems later.
These mistakes can be wide and varied. You might want to be an industrial scientist, but not realize that your advisor thinks that’s “selling out” and when you start looking for jobs, they’re unhelpful for even antagonistic.
You might have big plans for a project that’s never been done before only to later discover you chose a lab that doesn’t have reliable funding.
You might simply discover that your advisor, who is very good at being a researcher, isn’t a very good manager and doesn’t understand your career plans.
The fact is, PhD advisors are human, and they have flaws. Students should never expect to find a perfect advisor, and should always be prepared to supplement their advisor’s suggestions, particularly about career plans, with advice from other scientists and professionals.
But a scientist’s relationship with their advisor, which is a five to ten year marriage followed by coparenting a child called your career, is the most important choice that they can make.
I don’t use the marriage analogy lightly. Give birth to your PhD with the wrong person, and you could be really screwed — because that person is going to be one of the phone calls made any time you apply for a job.
These things, if you’re not from an academic background, are things you won’t know going in.
The next phase, once you have selected your advisor, is where you form a committee, usually, and where you look for a topic for your thesis. This is a less focused period, during which students still take occasional classes in advanced topics relevant to their research, but largely students in this phase explore several laboratory projects and hone their investigative and experimental skills.
Unless you are a person who has unusually high scientific talent even for a PhD, most everything you generate during this period will be essentially useless in the long run. This is the period where you’re trying things out, and you’ll fail a lot because of your low skills, because experiments don’t have an avenue to go down, or simply by the luck of the draw.
What you do will be important because it will train you, but the experimental results will largely be low quality or negative, and that is normal. This can be a really difficult experience, particularly for the type of person who becomes a PhD student; they may not have a lot of experience with failure.
If you find it’s too much for you, and your love of science can’t overcome the fear of failure, it might be time to leave with a masters degree, because once you commit to a thesis project, if you leave, employers are going to wonder why. Of course, no one tells you that, either.
Once this period of relative freedom ends — and it lasts for a different period of time for every institution and potentially for each student — you advance to focused research on your thesis topic.
By this point, you’re expected to know everything that is known about your specific topic. If it is published, you should have read it. This doesn’t mean you’ll be failed out if you missed one paper, but it does mean that from here on out, 80% of your working time is dedicated to creating new facts rather than learning old ones.
Making new facts is what you are training to do. A PhD is a certification that you don’t just know everything about your field — that’s a prerequisite to getting the doctorate, not the result of it — but also that you can expand your field by making new knowledge.
You generate new facts by doing lots and lots of experiments, over and over again, and applying your reasoning skills to glean information from the results of those experiments. You’re expected to learn how to learn new techniques, adapt quickly, and focus well.
If you enter this phase already depressed from the previous two, it can be a nightmare. Or, if experimentation is your strength, it can be the really affirming validation that you need to recover.
The years after you begin working on your thesis are when your advisor trains you to become a professional artisan of knowledge, dredging it from the dark space off the map and bringing it into the light.
Every person with a PhD after their name has added some kind of new information to the world of human knowledge. Every person who has a PhD has written a book (their thesis) that details this new knowledge, and has probably also written one or more peer reviewed scientific papers.
You want to know why I said before that a PhD is the world’s expert on their thesis topic? It’s because they wrote the book on it, and before that, nobody knew the facts that they discovered. What a PhD certifies is that you have proven your ability to identify and execute a project that nobody has ever tried before.
That doesn’t guarantee you can repeat that success after your PhD, but it does mean you’re likely to be able to. It shows you have uncommon independence and problem solving skills. It means that as long as something has been done in your field, you should be able to figure out how it was done and what the next steps should be.
When a PhD student ultimately writes and defends their thesis at the end of this phase, it’s that understanding of their topic — and ability to apply it to new, related areas — that their thesis examination committee will probe. That exam is the final hurdle in a long course.
By this point, if you are not ready, your committee will not allow you to proceed to the exam. While most students worry about failing, in truth, if you would fail, you’d never be allowed to take the exam in the first place. Not that the thesis defense is easy. It’s just that the only ones who take it are those who are really ready.
Passing your thesis defense means you’re certified to get inside the unknown, and make it known, through problem solving and ingenuity.
It also means you’re a certified asker of questions. In fact, a PhD is better at asking questions than at answering them, and PhDs are pretty great at answering questions. They just happen to ask more than they could possibly answer, and that insatiable curiosity is what drives people to careers in science.
Since you have more questions than answers, it’s easy for a PhD student or even a graduate to feel stupid. The truth is, you’re only as stupid as the rest of the human race. We are all stupid, and there is no shame in admitting it.
In fact, our ignorance of reality makes science worth doing. As long as we live in a world where humanity doesn’t know everything (and we actually have proven we can’t ever know it all), stupidity will be science’s greatest tool.
No matter who you are, there is always something you don’t know and don’t understand. To a scientist, that’s exciting. It’s that excitement that drives everything in the process I’ve described here — and beyond. Despite the hurdles, despite everything, a PhD is worth it for the people who never lose excitement at probing in the dark, along the wall of their own ignorance to discover that rare place where instead of a wall, their fingers find a door that can be opened.
John Skylar is an author of fiction, nonfiction, and science. Find all of his work, and some other general nonsense he’s done, at www.johnskylar.com.
This piece is dedicated to John Hasier, my dear friend who just passed his comprehensive examination to proceed with his PhD.