Thursday, January 8, 2009

Notes on the "Notes on the PhD Degree", Part 1

Notes on the Phd Degree<--Original, in bold, from the site linked. Sarcastic comments, in italics, my own.

Last week at the department colloquium coffee hour, several students engaged the faculty in a discussion about our Ph.D. program. It became clear that many of the students did not understand the basics; they were surprised at some of the questions and confused by some of the answers.

Suggesting that perhaps said student bodies engaged the faculty in discussion without doing even the most rudimentary Googling on the subject, nor had they learned anything about it during their time at the university so far (despite every single one of their teachers possessing such a degree). From which one might conclude that that their brains are to this subject more-or-less what a duck's back is to water.

These notes provide basic information about the purpose of a Ph.D. program in an attempt to help students decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. degree.

Assuming that they take the trouble of reading even a rudimentary online summary on the topic (see above).

A Doctor of Philosophy degree, abbreviated Ph.D., is the highest academic degree anyone can earn. Because earning a Ph.D. requires extended study and intense intellectual effort, less than one percent of the population attains the degree. Society shows respect for a person who holds a Ph.D. by addressing them with the title ``Doctor''.

I would suggest that 98% of people never attain a Phd because 1) they have no idea what it is or 2) they don't want one. Prior to reading this summary I had assumed that both 1) & 2) disqualified one from consideration. (The other 1% either smoked too much marijuana or married someone who lives in the real world and chose to cohabit with them there for the sake of the children). Further, as the vast majority of people do not in fact know what a PhD is they rarely call a PhD graduate "Doctor", and if you call yourself "Doctor" they will often try to show you their hemorrhoids. Many PhD graduates are unaware of this fact as they spend most of their time socialising with other PhD graduates--and calling each other "Doctor" (except in Australia where this is considered pretentious).

To earn a Ph.D., one must accomplish two things. First, one must master a specific subject completely. Second, one must extend the body of knowledge about that subject.

Otherwise stated: you must find something so unimportant that almost nobody else cares about it, and then go one step further to reach a state of glorious isolation. This is glibly described in distinguishing between the Bachelor and PhD student by saying "one knows almost nothing about almost everything, and the other almost everything about almost nothing". Hence if one does not become married before completing the thesis the chances of ever doing so diminish precipitously as you become more fascinated with a topic that, by definition, bores everyone else to tears.

To master a subject, a student searches the published literature to find and read everything that has been written about the subject. In scientific disciplines, a student begins by studying general reference works such as text books. Eventually, the student must also search scholarly journals, the publications that scientists use to exchange information and record reports of their scientific investigations.

Personally I would rather hope that they would start at the level of scholarly journals, having dispensed with Dick-and-Jane secondary texts during their Bachelors degree. But then having published in scholarly journals I labor under the illusion that their readership extends beyond the author, one or two academic nemesi, and the journal's section editor.

Each university establishes general guidelines that a student must follow to earn a Ph.D. degree, and each college or department within a university sets specific standards by which it measures mastery of a subject. Usually, in preparing for Ph.D. work in a given field, a student must earn both a Bachelor's and Master's degree (or their equivalent) in that field or in a closely related field. To demonstrate complete mastery of the subject, a student may be required to complete additional graduate-level courses, maintain a high grade average, or take a battery of special examinations. In many institutions, students must do all three.

Some even carry out and publish original research, or so I am told. But obviously coursework and a high grade average is more important. (In the backward antipodes it is rumored that grade averages are expressed in numbers and extend, at most, part way into the Masters at which course work, shockingly, is no longer required. One assumes this is the point at which students are required to think for themselves, should they prove capable of doing so).

Because examinations given as part of a Ph.D. curriculum assess expert knowledge, they are created and evaluated by a committee of experts, each of whom holds a Ph.D. degree.

And several of whom begin to test one's faith that a Ph.D. "requires extended study and intense intellectual effort". Displaying as they do the mental acuity of a stoned walrus.

The essence of a Ph.D., the aspect that distinguishes Ph.D. study from other academic work, can be summarized in a single word: research.

The nature of the Ph.D. graduate can be summed up by the fact that 380 words precede the word "research" in this summary of "basic information".

To extend knowledge, one must explore, investigate, and contemplate. The scientific community uses the term research to capture the idea.

Alliteratively one can find a famous researcher to supervise the thesis and agree with everything they say. This approach is less taxing and more profitable in the long and short term.

In scientific disciplines, research often implies experimentation, but research is more than mere experiments -- it means interpretation and deep understanding. For Computer Scientists, research means searching to uncover the principles that underlie digital computation and communication. A researcher must discover new techniques that aid in building or using computational mechanisms. Researchers look for new abstractions, new approaches, new algorithms, new principles, or new mechanisms.

One is also indoctrinated in the innate superiority of one's discipline over other "mere" endeavors.

To complete a Ph.D., each student must present results from their research to the faculty in a lengthy, formal document called a dissertation (more popularly referred to as a thesis). The student must then submit their dissertation to the faculty and defend their work an oral examination.

Unless said faculty are getting cable installed, in which case they won't bother attending--for fear that the cable man might steal their hand built and fully functional R2D2 replica, or say something interesting to their spouse. (Motivation speculative, reason for non-attendance real).

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