1.3 A definition of Ph.D.?

By searching define PhDdefine PhD degree, define doctorate, PhD definition, and other combinations on major search engines, I was prompted with a number of dictionaries, university pages and reference web-sites. By reading those that appeared more relevant, I gathered that a PhD—from now on I will omit the dots—“normally follows a Master’s degree; it can take several years to complete, depending on the area of speciality; it’s the highest academic degree offered“.

Keywords such as degree, academia, and several years to complete are probably enough to convince most readers to click away in less than no time. Yet, for those that are still interested, the few lines above leave the reader with much uncertainty. For example, a PhD follows a Master’s degree in the majority of the cases, but this is not always true. We learn that it can take several years, but that sounds more like a foreboding warning rather than a precise information. The only positive aspect is that a PhD is the highest academic degree offered, which is undoubtedly appealing.

Sometimes an appealing feature such as “the highest academic degree” could represent a  sufficient and obtrusive argument to shadow other questions. If my highest ambition was indeed to obtain the highest academic degree, or my objectives in life could be achieved only by means of it, other aspects and details would become of secondary importance, and I would be prepared to undertake anything that comes with it. When important achievements are being pursed, one cares less for the detail. Perhaps it is due to this, to the charm that transpires from the degree of doctor of philosophy, that critical quests for the meaning of PhD become blunt in a hazy cloud of glamour. Our need for a better understanding saps in the varnished light of the highest academic degree.

In the attempt of describing and understanding the meaning of PhD, we must disregard the alleged prestige of the doctorate degree, and continue critically our investigation. I found it surprisingly difficult to gather more established information that was not tailored to a specific program, subject or university. Collecting bits of definitions here and there, I managed to draft a longer description of PhD:

a PhD degree is intended to teach a student to carry out independent, autonomous research in a specific field. The minimum duration of such training is three years. On completion, a student should present and defend a dissertation or thesis before an academic panel. The content of the dissertation should constitute novel and original research that advances the knowledge in the specific field, and as such proves the capability of the candidate to carry out independent research.

The concise description that I have attempted is an average of many scattered documents that do not find an official and unanimous ratification among universities. Therefore, PhD degrees are put into practice according to a wide variety of procedures and requirements. For instance, Wikipedia pages offer a list of descriptions of PhDs in many countries, from Australia to the U.S. After perusing a number of documents, I was convinced that each country, each university, and even each supervisor, have their own interpretation of PhD.

A reason for such diversity could be sought in key-point of the description above: what does it mean actually to be able to carry out independent research? What is the procedure for achieving that, how different it is from other jobs, and what does one really need to learn? It is from these questions that a multitude and divergence of opinions arise. Nearly everyone I interviewed on the subject seemed to have a slightly different belief on those topics. How to educate a student, how to transfer knowledge, methodology and skills is not easily agreed upon. It is perhaps from these diverse views and opinions that PhD studies inherit that mark of vagueness, and so long as two supervisors will think differently, there will be at least two different ideas of PhD.

Defining the meaning of PhD in a precise manner does not appear a simple task, and perhaps it is not the best way to understand its meaning and implications.


2.1 A difficult choice

It was a bright summer day in Lausanne. I left the office earlier in the afternoon to spend some hours with N. We enjoyed a long and relaxing stroll on the lakeside from Saint-Sulpice to Ouchy. The air was warm. It was difficult not to feel on holiday despite the large amount of work I had. Swans and ducks seemed to share my mood, dawdling on the beach, looking at people with idle detachment. Towards evening N. and I reached the city centre, and were making our way home up the steep Rue du Petit Chêne, when I caught sight of T. hurrying down the street in opposite direction.  I called him out loud, lest he would pass by without noticing us. He stopped abruptly, looked confused, and in no time presented us with his bizarre mishap. He had just realised that earlier that day he ought to have been on a plane from Geneva to Eindhoven for a job interview the morning after. How on earth he forgot, or messed up the day, he had no idea. We believed him instantly from his bemused expression. Presently he rushed home to pack and think of a way of getting to Eindhoven in time for the interview – if that was possible at all. We bade good-bye and wished good luck to my baffled friend, and continued walking up towards Place Saint-François, thoughtfully and slightly amused.

T., just like me, happened to be in Lausanne for a few months for an internship at a research lab. During my half a year stay, I lived in a small studio flat in Avenue de France. The flat, although rather decent, was small and essential, and did not quite offer much excitement. I had no TV, no phone, no Internet, and my general policy was not to spend there more time than what was necessary to sleep. The rest of the day was dedicated to work, and social activities; the regime went on for seven restless months. In a short time I got acquainted with many people, exchange students and interns especially, and their stories, doubts and hopes for the future. T. was no exception, and his quest for his future job was uncertain as many others’. He received an offer for a PhD position at the lab where he was doing his internship. He liked it immediately and was very close to accepting it. The offer had undoubtedly a certain appeal, even if only for the lab was internationally renowned. Previously to that offer, T had scheduled a job interview with a large company in the Netherlands. Now, while seriously considering of starting his PhD in Switzerland, the interview in Eindhoven didn’t fill him with much enthusiasm. Of course, having two job offers rather than one could be a good point, but if one knows that is to no avail, having settled on one of the two, a certain listlessness could prevail. Whether this mood contributed to missing the flight, the fact was that the evening before his interview in the Netherlands, T. was still in Lausanne.

It was a couple of weeks later that I met T. again. He did manage to get to Eindhoven after all, travelling on a night train through Germany and arriving just an hour before the scheduled interview. They made him an offer, explained the conditions, future possibilities and so on.  And that was a critical turning point. Despite his initial propensity to start a PhD, the new possibility of a job in the Netherlands threw T. in a difficult situation. With two offers, two jobs—a PhD and a research position in industry—two countries and one choice to make, T.’s decision was not about little details or money, but about his future identity. Was he going to be a PhD student in the French speaking Switzerland, or an industry researcher in the Netherlands?

The moment of choice that comes after a master degree is often difficult. Up to that point, I could always look up on my study plan to know which module was next. When all the exams were passed and the master thesis delivered, no one would tell me what I was supposed to do. When in search of a job, the wider are the choices and range of possibilities, the stronger are the doubts and questions. Perhaps what got me interested in T.’s dilemma was that his choice was not between two similar jobs, but rather between two different worlds: academia or industry. Going into the private sector would most certainly mean to drop any hopes of ever obtaining a PhD and embracing all the possibilities that the degree gives. For someone with certain ambitions or keen of intellectual challenges, a PhD is probably a good ground. On the other hand, aspirations and challenges are possible outside academia as well as inside, and to drop a sure position and a real, rewarding job in industry is not easy altogether. T. surely knew that after some years in Eindhoven he would have gained a certain status, a precious working experience for a renowned company, and secured a stable job with good future expectations. Starting a PhD in Lausanne implied many uncertainties, only counterbalanced by the hope of achieving a PhD. But what then? And what possibilities would he have? Who was he going to be? A brilliant, emerging researcher, a future professor? An open-minded young academic? An old student, grown timid and frustrated with little money and satisfaction? An unemployed, 30-year old PhD without working experience?

On the whole, my impression is that while certain jobs let you see to a certain extent who you are going to be in a few years time, a PhD study programme promises big achievements looming far in a haze of unpredictable troubles and uncertainties. A PhD then hides an important fact: who are you going to be? Then the question is… PhD who?