Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Value of a PhD

I recently stumbled across the blog The Unapologetic Mathematician, and read this post. Its title suggests that it is about commencement exercises, one of those, admittedly rather boring, academic rituals that get perpetuated every year. In reality, the post waxes lyrically about the "value" of a PhD.

As will be clear to those of you who read that piece, the "unapologetic mathematician" can write! For what it is worth, I agree with what he says. Here is an excerpt I really liked.

The doctorate is the gold standard of the academy. You can’t get it by spitting back answers on a sequence of course finals. You can’t get it by retaining the material until a collection of comprehensive exams, or by writing up a survey of relevant literature. You attain a doctorate by extending the boundaries human knowledge.

This society generally speaks well of originality, but it tends to mean a rather pale sort. To really, truly think of something nobody else has before — and to be able to justify it — is really far more difficult than most people give credit to. It’s not something you do on weekends, in your spare time while doing other more important things. The Great Work is hard. It means steeping yourself in a subject until you understand in a way only a handful of other people do. It means sacrificing years of your life to the pursuit of something truly new and different. The path is littered with those who started and did not make it through to the end.

And it has no justification but itself. Nobody goes into academics for the money. Nobody does it for the praise of the masses. Compared to most other things any of these new doctors could have done it will be temporally thankless. You live the academic life because you look outside at the amazing world around yourself and you realize that, for you, the highest achievement of the human spirit is to understand it more deeply — to internalize some aspect of it, digest it, and help share that with the rest of humanity. You do it because it is fundamentally worth doing. The life of the mind has a value in and of itself. And so these men and women have chosen this value over all the others they might have.

Amen. In a society where money is the only thing that seems to matter, and where any line of study carrying one or more of the tags "business", "financial" or "media" attracts hundreds of students, it is good to see somebody sing the praises of adding a little to the honour of the human spirit.


Anonymous said...

I think, the key point is to transmit this.. I don't know.. Principles? Ideas? or what else.. to the new generations of students/PhD. And in many cases this is not the case..

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