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Why get a Ph.D.?

Based on the popular demand, I will give my opinion on why one may consider getting a Ph.D. Every Ph.D. degree holder who has gone through the process, has his or her justification of why they had engaged on and persevered throughout the arduous journey of earning this educational degree.

When I just started my Ph.D. training, I posed this question to my Ph.D. advisor. He pointed out that in his view the only worthy reason for getting a Ph.D. was to become a fully trained Jedi Knight, thus becoming a member of an elite order of technical professionals who have gone through a rigorous training process and passed all the tests satisfactorily. I can certainly confirm that my Ph.D. training taught me how to think about hard problems systematically. Because of my prior training as a professional musician, I already had known how to work toward a non-trivial goal for prolong periods of time. However, I posit that certain facets of my personality are certainly due to the Ph.D. training process I have successfully completed, and this has nothing to do with Computer Science or even research in general.

Let me make this point by telling a story that took place soon after I successfully defended my dissertation. I was in this blissful state of mind that I like to call “a prolonged Friday.” On Friday, the work week is ending up, while the new week is still two days away to be seriously contemplated (if you are not on a tenure-track, of course). Indeed, at that time I completed all my Ph.D. milestones, while my faculty job was not going to start for another couple of months. I was told that people who have just defended their Ph.D. dissertations should try to avoid driving a car for at least a couple of days–as these days have been observed as being particularly accidents prone.

No, I did not get into an accident. I simply made an illegal left turn, a transgression that was observed by a campus cop, who promptly wrote me a ticket. I was clearly at fault there, and I could have just paid the ticket. However, I was about to move to another state and would need to get a car insurance quote. Having a ticket on my record could spoil my chances of getting a good insurance rate. Fortunately, I knew that every three years, the state law allowed a driver to plead Nolo Contendere (no-contest) to a traffic offense. By entering this plea but paying the fine in full, the driver would avoid having the offense posted to his driving record. Since I had not have any traffic offenses in the previous three years, I decided to go to the traffic court and enter my no-contest plea in person.

As it turned out, I arrived to the traffic court way too early. Besides me, there was another person waiting for the court to start. When I asked my waiting companion what he was there for, it turned out that he was a long-haul driver who took some wrong highway while driving through the city. As it turned out, the truckers who drive through big cities are forbidden from taking certain highways. I was fascinated by this unique opportunity to learn about the area of occupation about which I knew little.

Naturally, I took full advantage of this opportunity. For the next hour, I systematically asked the truck driver about the realities of his job, which included the training he had received, his biggest frustrations, and future aspirations. The driver gladly shared his substantial expertise and experience with me. During that hour, I got a fairly detailed idea about not only how truckers make their living, but also how the general economy was affecting their profession. I found out the purpose of the weight stations we see on every major interstates. It was fascinating to find out that the scales in different weight stations do not work identically and how this can significantly complicate a long haul. I also learned that high diesel prices were particularly harmful for independent truckers. Overall, I eagerly engaged in a fascinating learning experience, and I was thoroughly enjoying the process. As I was listening to the trucker talking about his trade, I got a couple of research ideas that, if pursued, could develop new types of distributed information systems that could better inform the driver.

The net effect of this experience was that by the time I left the traffic court, I learnt something about a completely new domain and got a couple of research ideas. Overall, getting this traffic ticket exposed me to new knowledge, an experience that I appreciated greatly. And then I realized that I have really become a Ph.D., a Doctor of Philosophy. In Greek, “philosophy” means “love of knowledge.” Having gone through my Ph.D. training, I acquired a new outlook on life, where I treat all my life experiences as a learning opportunity. Later I also started to evaluate unpleasant events in my life from the perspective of whether they’d make a good story to tell to my students.

In my view, the ability to perceive one’s life as a series of learning experiences is one of the most important outcomes of getting a Ph.D. It is certainly possible that some have a similar outlook on life, acquired innately. Nevertheless, in my case, I credit my Ph.D. training for this ability, for which I am extremely grateful. I do realize that this is not a satisfactory answer to the question of why one may want to get a Ph.D., but this is the best answer I can provide.

  1. February 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Well presented and extremely insightful!!

  2. February 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

    My girlfriend is in the social sciences and I see a lot of her friends who are pursuing PhDs just because it’s the highest degree, or just because some particular job requires it… they seem to have no connection to the idea that the point of their degree is to do original research for the rest of their life.

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