Reflections on a journey

The 20:40 Virgin Pendolino Service from London Euston to Wolverhampton left the station in perfect time. Heavy clouds filtered the dim light of the fading day. The convoy proceeded at a sluggish pace for a while. After twenty minutes a voice from the loud speakers informed the passengers that there was a delay. A wooden step ladder, so the voice said, touched the overhead wires along the railway. A couple of passengers sitting in front of me frowned. I imagined an old retired man walking along the railway and getting his step ladder entangled in the wires. Presently a new message announced that the obstacle had been removed, and the train gathered speed. I got pen and paper from my pocket. Then paused thoughtfully. The landscape was running fast outside the window.

It must be roughly a thousand days since I moved to England, I thought. A field scattered with white sheep went past at a ridiculous speed. A power line ran along the railway, the cables oscillating obsessively up and down as the train went. I stared back at my notebook. Such a long time has already passed since I started this strange activity, which some  refer to as “Ph.D.”. I recalled those early days. Now, whether I liked or not, I had no much choice but to go on with this adventure. I am a student. Technically at least. That is equivalent to say that I don’t pay income taxes, nor the council tax. Practically, I see myself more like an employee. I have been a student for long enough, first as an undergraduate, then as a master student. Now I am well paid as a teaching assistant. I don’t take exams, I’m autonomous in my research.

Even after so long, immersed in the academic world,  I still felt uncertain about a great number of things. I felt I still had to discover the core of my  Ph.D, as if the very secret of it was still far from my reach. I was pursuing something, an idea, a concept hidden under the fancy three-letter word “Ph.D.”.

I have just been at the Exmouth Arms, drinking a pint of good ale with a couple of colleagues. I had to rush out at half eight, knocking a chair down not to miss my train. I got at the station without a spare minute. As soon I jumped on the train, the doors closed behind me. Five seconds later and I would have missed it. It thrilled me. It’s like meeting a deadline just in time. It is something that excites me. It gives me feeling of time and synchrony with the world. But above all is the idea that the winner is not the first who comes. The real winner is the last that catches the last train on the last day with an handful of seconds to spare. Then is when you say to yourself, I made it, and you walk confident to take your sit next to the average bore who has been sitting there for ages wasting his life. I would probably be less bold had I missed the train. In reality it was simply hard to leave colleagues and friends at the pub. I had been absorbed in conversation, brandishing glasses of ales and feeling strong about papers, scientists, conferences and life in general.

The Exmouth Arms near Euston Station
The Exmouth Arms near Euston Station

The conversation then expanded on more general topics. Soon the whole world and human nature were the subjects of our debate. This is a common way to end my conferences. I was slightly excited—a thing that can happen when not sleeping much–but that’s not why I felt in the need of being assertive, compelled to state my ideas. Often, I believe, is  my nameless job than pushes me to declare my doings and intentions. The fact that my official occupation is so unclear maybe creates the need to identify myself with something more specific, like an idea or belief.  When asked what I do, I am inevitably in trouble

‘I’m doing a Ph.D.’, I say when I’m introduced to someone.
‘Oh, ah’, is a frequent answer to my declaration. Then, after a pregnant silence, ‘ A… Ph.D., ehm… right, what kind? I mean… in what?’.
‘Well’, I start, and stop immediately. ‘It’s about… it’s a bit difficult to say, really, something in betwee this field and that field, you know…’.

‘Oh ah’, is often a second eloquent comment, sometimes followed by,  ‘Interesting.’. Some approving nods might follow. But no one in the audience seems very convinced. Am I studying? Am I working? What sort of things do I really do? Do I know really know? Someone may venture to say, ‘I have a friend who does something similar, I guess, just not exactly, I’m not quite sure…, I suppose it’s quite different actually, down in Sussex, anyway.’

No doubt, the general feeling is that of being at a loss. Suddenly the solid ground of small talk vanishes. The weather, and other lesser topics don’t seem very profund and elevated topics for discussion with student of science. With my declaration, I had decided to step out of the real world and set myself on the unfathomable plinth of the Ph.D. institution.

Sometimes I wish I could say I’m a lawyer, I’m a physician, or anything else that describes a profession. It happened once, while out one evening with my friend Ben, that we asked some random people to guess our jobs. No one got close, but someone suggested my friend Ben could be an hair dresser. I roared and rolled with laughter for a long time, while Ben actually got cross. He then dropped any regional accent, and now speaking in a high register, endeavoured to explain that we were actually scientists. I told him I didn’t see anything wrong with being an hair dresser. They probably make more money than us, go around in sport cars and have plenty to talk to with girls. Anyway, those people in the pub wouldn’t believe a bit of us being scientists, especially after I produced the membership card of the Birmingham public library as a possible proof. When I think back of that episode, I cannot help but see the irony in it. We struggled to be something. We weren’t hair dressers, quite clearly, but we weren’t scientists either, or at least we could not show it.

People do not understand because we do not know ourselves what we really do. If I knew well, I would just explain it an few well chosen words, make everyone satisfied, and pass on to the next topic without wasting time. A real scientist, while addressing a group of average Joes in a pub, would say, “If there is anything unclear, gentlemen, please do not hesitate to ask questions”. On the contrary, given my confusion, I cast confusions on everyone else too. I am not sure what skills I am acquiring, if any at all. I don’t know what my duties are. I don’t know exactly what ought to be in my thesis… this thing I have to write in the end, nor I know how precisely I will go about to write it. I don’t know when I will finish, if I will finish one day, and I don’t know what will come after. Some of my colleagues ahead of me have given up the idea of explaining what they do. I suspect that some of them might not even be doing much, after all.

Yet I do not believe that the meaning of a Ph.D is diminished by the difficulty in describing it. It could be as well the opposite. Recalling many pub conversations, hard-working weeks, frustration and achievements, I feel that a Ph.D. is not all about confusion and vagueness.  I see principles and ideals lurking around it. It is perhaps difficult to follow principles, I admit that, and not everyone sees and likes the same principles. Still, one should not  consider principles and ideas as pure twaddle, frivolous baloney that anyone with common sense should be be aware of. On the contrary, I give much importance to the ideals I perceive behind my work. Reality might never be like the ideal model one wants to follow, but if one can see where to go, where to aim and strive, one can at least push hard in that direction.

Presently the train came to a halt for no apparent reason. Dusk had been replaced by a thick moon-less night. I looked out of the window, but all I could see was the foliage of a nearby tree and the reflection of my face on the window. A drop of water trickled down outside the window. I followed its irregular path until it disappeared on the edge. I had been musing over those Ph.D. issues and lost track of time, I had no idea where I was, nor how how long it was to go. I looked at the notes I had taken so far. The paper was full of small boxes and circles, and arrows connecting them into an intricate network. At the top of the page there was a title, “Ph.D. – What?”, followed by scattered clusters of writing:?“aspirations, goals, working patterns, life style, freedom, flexibility and drawbacks, conferences, private life and work, money, success, future, who… “

If one works well enough, I reckon, in the end he or she is awarded a Ph.D. And in practice? Who does one become in the end? Certainly one is four or five years older, but what else?


1.1 Teachers of Philosophy

Ph.D. means literary “teacher of philosophy”, from Latin Philosophiae Doctor, abbreviated  to Ph.D, sometimes, as at Oxford, also D.Phil.

With this definition in mind, and a practical approach, I started a careful examination of everyone I knew to be a teacher of philosophy. In the following days, I observed lecturers, researchers and some professors strolling around, going to seminars, gathering for meetings, having a coffee break and casually chatting in the corridors. It didn’t take me long to perceive a certain discrepancy between the observation and the image I had in mind of teachers of philosophy. Such image was somehow impressed upon me by the famous painting ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, which depicts a hall in which Plato and Aristotle are surrounded by other famous ancient philosophers.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. The detail is from a picture of the whole painting available on wikipedia.

The inconsistency grows even more when scrutinising the teachers-to-be, or Ph.D. students, who on average—although there are exceptions—cannot be seen during morning hours, walk around with music players, wear trainers and sloppy T-shirts, and have a cheerful and carefree, only occasionally downcast, appearance. One of course must take into consideration that music players and trainers did not exist in the ancient Greece, and fashion had not produced fancy T-shirts yet. However, even making allowances for all the aspects that modernity has introduced, it seems still clear that the current meaning of Ph.D. does not match the literal meaning of teacher of philosophy.

My first attempt to find out what Ph.D. is then appears to have gone amiss. Yet, the fact that the term Ph.D. does not match well the current, practical meaning is a possible source of confusion itself. After such investigation, one feels that universities ought to provide some further definition of Ph.D., there must be some general definition that describes the real meaning, or core, that makes a degree be called Ph.D. And that is what I’ll try to find out.


1.2 Panta Rei

In the previous post, I summoned the ancient philosophers in my apparently catastrophic attempt to explain the term Ph.D. My succinct analysis is however not entirely fair; although it seems clear that modern doctorates are not best described as teachers of philosophy, or even just philosophers, the term derives from the academic tradition and should not be seen just as a pretentious label attached to a university degree. After an investigation on the historical course of the degree, I discovered the motivations that caused such denomination to arrive to our days. An important fact to be considered is that the term philosophy itself has changed meaning during the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the disciplines that were not classified as theology, medicine and law were all defined as philosophy.

At a more informal level, a wit comment posted by Stian after my previous post outlined how philosophers and modern academics have more in common than one could initially think. It is true that ancient philosophers were in fact the first academics.

Then, it is perhaps worth casting a further glance at the painting “School of Athens” before moving forward: on the lower left, another famous philosopher, Heraclitus , is taking some notes after a sudden inspiration that apparently came upon him while looking at his knee.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. Detail depicting Heraclitus .

This is an important moment; here at the very school of Athens we find already the seed of change, or at least the awareness of such change: Heraclitus’s philosophy was later encapsulated in the famous aphorism “Panta rei”, meaning everything is in flux, everything changes constantly. There is little doubt that if Heraclitus could see Ph.D. nowadays, he would be utterly dumbstruck to discover how right his theory was after all.

It was a long way though, and the Ph.D. title didn’t just came into being one sunny morning while a yawning professor stared at his knee. It was in the Middle Ages that the European universities started to award the first Doctorate degrees as forms of habilitation for teaching. The records tell us that Bologna University awarded the first Doctorate degrees in Civil Law at the end of the 12th century. But it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the Ph.D. awarded by German universities was adopted by American universities as well. In that period, American bachelors, attracted by the prestige of German universities, would travel to Europe to earn a German Ph.D. The influence was such that in 1861 Yale University awarded the first Ph.D. and in 1876 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore set rigid standards to make the U.S. Ph.D. comparable to the German degree. From the U.S. the degree spread to Canada and back to Europe in the 20th century. Although Ph.D. is a rather popular degree nowadays, there are many kind of Doctorate degrees: the Encyclopaedia Americana reports a list of 20 Doctorate degrees, from Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L) to Doctor of Science.
The history of Ph.D. is indeed a jungle of degrees and conventions among many countries and universities. I shall inevitably refer to the many accounts on encyclopaedias for further details.

At this point, after a bit of historical background, I’m somehow pressed to leave the past and dive into the current life, hoping also to keep up the interest of my eleven readers. In the next post I will crawl the Net in search of hints on the modern Ph.D. world.


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.