A personal view on qualification for the Ph.D.

March 16, 2011

Micro Dr. O said:

But not the kind of experience that necessarily equips one with the critical thinking skills required** for a PhD. That kind of knowledge takes years to acquire. You don’t (usually) get it in a masters program, and it’s not (usually) absorbed just by working in a lab.

I have two things I’d like to see a person accomplish in a doctoral program:

1) Reading so deeply and critically into the literature of sub-sub-topic X that they are not only the world’s expert in that topic at this point in time but that they realize that they are the world’s expert.

2) Being able to approach any and all new papers in the literature with the ability to simultaneously maintain the thoughts that “this is all total bullshit” and “this is the awesomez!” with mental citation ticking to justify each position.

Once you are there, you deserve the PhD.

No Responses Yet to “A personal view on qualification for the Ph.D.”

  1. DNLee Says:

    Yep, that sums it up. LOL!!


  2. Bashir Says:

    re: #1

    Realizing it is an odd feeling. I remember being given the advice while dissertating to remember than I knew more about my topic than anyone on my committee. I think I got that eventually. Even so it took a little while into my postdoc to get used to the idea of being the local expert in my sub-area.


  3. Dr. O Says:

    Reading so deeply and critically into the literature of sub-sub-topic X that they are not only the world’s expert in that topic at this point in time but that they realize that they are the world’s expert.

    I remember being at a meeting my final of grad school, and realizing I knew more about the literature than one of the big-time PIs who had published many of the papers I had been reading. It was freaky, to say the least. The older (and a little bit wiser) me kind of expects it.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    One of the more frustrating things about mentorship, IME, lies in communicating to trainees that this is the target. I.e., that they should be pulling the “cited literature” threads all the way back and across and through the body of related literature.

    I remember those days in the first couple of years of grad when I couldn’t believe all these profs seemed to be able to rattle off cites and findings so readily. It seemed a deficit of my own smarts to me at that point. By the time you’ve lived the life for 4-5 years, you start to get it…..


  5. Kaija Says:

    Having a librarian and an English professor as parents gave me a leg up on this part of the PhD. I was indoctrinated from a young age as to finding and citing sources and backing up my arguments with primary literature 🙂 Multidisciplinary training from Year Zero!


  6. becca Says:

    oHh! how did your folks manage year zero? My 18 month old has been citing sources since he was 8 months, but he doesn’t seem to differentiate ‘primary literature’ from ‘brown bear brown bear what do you see’ yet.


  7. TheGrinch Says:

    DM, do you think some evidence of scholarly output is a necessary prerequisite to reach #2 nirvana? In my case, I realized #1 around the time of dissertation defense, but cannot pinpoint when #2 snuck up on me.


  8. And once you are a PI, you will never again be as much of an expert at anything as your trainees.


  9. I would add the ability to see beyond simple black and white assessments of the world. I find the people I talk to that are PhD’s or advanced graduate students see the rules can often be guidelines and are willing to explore the gray areas in the world. They realize the gray areas are the exciting parts to discuss, observe, and research.
    This is part of why I enjoy chatting with PhD types. I enjoy exploring the gray areas ad nauseum.


  10. leigh Says:

    while i received plenty of this kind of feedback from my grad mentor, i first actively realized that #1 when interviewing for a postdoc. the interviewer, who i wanted very badly to impress (because i really wanted that position), asked me a simple question. i thought certainly s/he was just testing me. no, it turned out s/he did not know the answer and i was the knowledgable one in the conversation.

    that changed everything from that day forward.


  11. whimple Says:

    It’s not sufficient to be the world’s expert in critical appreciation of the published literature. You have to make a novel contribution to that published literature too.


  12. bsci Says:

    I think the “you are the world’s expert” criteria is unnecessarily high. At the most basic level, I don’t think it’s true for quite a few PhDs so why create a fake ideal? Perhaps “You can hold your own in a conversation with the world’s experts.” As for what it actually takes to get a PhD, “You know more than the members of your thesis committee on a specific topic,” is probably the real requirement.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I am not in agreement with this criterion. Especially given the large number of factors that govern successful publication that are independent of the degree to which the grad student has learned and been trained.

    Furthermore, it suggests that experimental “success” vs. “failure” determines the quality of the effort. This is wrong and perpetuates a culture in which the pressure to fake and cheat is ever increasing.


  14. whimple Says:

    The “world’s expert” could surely make a contribution to the published literature in the form of an insightful and thought-provoking review article, if in no other way. Also, there are any number of publication venues today in which one can put in print well-conceived and well-controlled experiments, even if those experiments had a “negative result”. If knowledge in and of itself is sufficient, is there any need to write a dissertation? We may just have to agree to disagree on whether “book learning” is sufficient for a Ph.D. Don’t put me on your doctoral committee if you think that it is! 🙂


  15. becca Says:

    @Slightly_Rifted- I agree with you, but I think DM covered that when he described the mental status necessary for approaching new research in #2. Holding “this is all total bullshit” and “this is the awesomez!” in your mind simultaneously requires a tolerance of ambiguity.

    DM- I think you left something out. I can see where whimple is coming from, but I don’t think getting something published per se is truly the mark of successful training… I think being able to apply the “this is all total bullshit” and “this is the awesomez!” mentality *to your own work* is the critical thing- which often happens during publishing or dissertation defense. And, truthfully, it’s an ideal rather than a specifically obtainable concrete milestone.


  16. bsci Says:

    The line I’ve heard on the publications issue is to have X (usually 3) distinct publication-quality pieces of work. Whether or not something gets published, your thesis committee thinks it was of sufficient quality to be published. It also leaves a bit of leeway for a high quality null result to count. That said, if someone can’t put together even a single successful experiment, I’m not sure that’s worth a PhD. Being able to design a study that will give interesting results even if the main hypothesis turned out wrong is a major skill that should be learned during graduate school.


  17. Kaija Says:

    I don’t remember much of Years Zero through Two, but my mother tells me that I tried cite religious text at my Lutheran preschool by admonishing a classmate that “Mona, the Bible says ‘don’t bite’!”


  18. Dr. O Says:

    Agreed with Becca and Whimple – thinking about your own experiments critically and writing a paper in the context of the pre-existing literature is crucial to earning a PhD. Where that paper ends up getting published, and if it gets published before the actual defense, is another story, and should not affect the ability of a candidate to graduate. But I would want to see at least one well-written publication from a grad student before they defend.


  19. Kaija Says:

    Amen…critical thinking and systemic analysis is woefully underappreciated and underutilized in all of life, particularly in looking at ethical, sociological, or political issues these days. Most of life lies in the gray areas…most of the really interesting stuff does too, which is why this modern drive to black or white categorization baffles me.


  20. Isabel Says:

    I agree with Wimple also. Negative results are results; you’ve narrowed things down at least. That is a contribution. But a failed experiment is not a contribution, or at least not a particularly helpful one. You’ll just have to refine your technique, or design a new pcr primer, or alter (or even totally revamp) your approach. I agree with the ‘expert in your field part’, although that may be easier for us NSF folks, where so many areas of inquiry are wide open? I think I achieved that by my oral exams in my second year, although in my case I came in with a specific interest.

    What about publications that are side projects that are only indirectly related to your main thesis question/research? Should these count toward the PhD?


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    but you will notice that I did not mention whether I though you could reach my criteria solely through “book learning”, whimple.

    and even though it is possible to publish methodological and negative outcome publications, this may not be ok with the PI.

    But what I was really trying to get at is that I think that a graduate student can spend four years (not a fan of 6 myself) working productively, learn a whole lot about what she needs to know as a scientist and still come up with insufficient data for a publication. At that point my option would be to suggest she move on to the postdoc rather than spend another two or three years just trying to get a publication. That extra bit is not what determine whether she is worthy of the PhD. IMO.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    What about publications that are side projects that are only indirectly related to your main thesis question/research? Should these count toward the PhD?

    For those of you who are big fans of publications as a criterion I don’t see how you can say anything other than yes.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    The line I’ve heard on the publications issue is to have X (usually 3) distinct publication-quality pieces of work. Whether or not something gets published, your thesis committee thinks it was of sufficient quality to be published.

    This is a refinement that makes a lot of sense to me, if you are going to assert that learning how to craft a story a la what is required for a manuscript is a necessary skill. I can probably get behind this…


  24. Confounding Says:

    Apparently the internets devoured this comment posted last night. Or more likely, I hit Preview instead of Post. Regardless…

    I’m a fan of the “You must have X pieces of publication-quality papers” system of determining qualification – I occasionally see it with the caveat that at least some number of them must already be in submission. I think that indicates at least an intention and ability to “step into the arena” as it were, without subjecting hapless doctoral students to the actual vagaries of the publication game as a requirement for their degree.

    As for ‘side projects’, I don’t think they should count. I’ve been lucky enough in my career to end up as a prominent author on a few papers that were either thought-pieces, or really don’t constitute the culmination of a project I designed and initiated – which is the point of the dissertation paper system. It’s a touch too easy to potentially have a kind PI drop something in your lap that ends with you as first author, and have that be called “done”.


  25. As for ‘side projects’, I don’t think they should count.

    This is the stupidest fucken thinge I’ve ever heard. Who the fucke is gonna decide what is a “side” project, and what is not? You gonna constitute some kind of “Institutional Side Project Adjudication Panel”?

    It’s hard to believe that anyone who has actually gone through the process of earning a PhD could possibly suggest something so gobsmackingly idiotic.


  26. DrugMonkey Says:

    Wouldn’t that be ” The Dissertation Committee” PhysioProf?


  27. The dissertation committee is supposed to decide what is “side” and what is not? Gimme a fucken break. And what the fucken hell does “side” have to do with the purpose of PhD training, anyway?


  28. whimple Says:

    The only real requirement for a Ph.D. is the dissertation committee says you deserve to get one. They can use whatever criteria they see fit, subject to oversight from the graduate school. Side projects, published papers, whatever, it’s all good if that’s the direction they want to go.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    What does a fixed number of pubs have to do with PhD training?


  30. Nothing. Counting publications is a stupid fucken pile of horseshit to begin with, and then imposing some kind of additional criterion that publications arising from “side” projects don’t “count” is just shoveling some bullshit on top of the horseshit.


  31. Isis the Scientist Says:



  32. drugmonkey Says:

    we are in agreement


  33. Oh, yeah? Well, fucke you.


  34. Jonathan Says:

    Perhaps things are different if you go to grad school in the US* but a PhD thesis *is* a contribution to the literature. Might not be as accessible as 452 PLoS ONE papers but it’s only slightly less accessible than a book chapter.

    *of course things are, because for some reason US PhDs include another two years of homework and exams and classes for reasons that I still don’t really understand.**

    **OK, fine, I do understand, but I still think it’s silly. I’ll take my 3.25 year PhD over a 5.25 year PhD any day of the week.


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