What’s in a PhD?

When I was studying undergraduate program at IIT Bombay, I was fascinated with the title Ph D. Most of the Professors who taught us were Ph Ds and I used to imagine a hallo of knowledge, confidence and superiority around their faces. Ph D is a supreme qualification that one achieves in the chosen discipline.

I had learnt that acquiring a Ph D requires hard work and a dedication. Later, I understood that you also need to have qualities of patience as well as tolerance (sometimes with your Guide). It often takes on an average of four years to get a Ph D and there are cases where students have taken even six years. May be this long wait must be making the student philosophical and so the degree Doctor of Philosophy gets awarded, independent of the specialization or discipline.

I started meeting with experts in the field of environment who had title of Ph D. I used to ask them about the topic they worked on and why? (this question was seldom answered), Professor they worked with and publications made in the journal. The last but important question used to be about the time taken.

I met one of the Chief Engineers in a Consulting Company who was well known for his expertise in the design of complex sewer networks. He told me that his Ph D was on the population dynamics of  Chlorella (a type of algae) in the Michigan Lake. Clearly, his Ph D research had nothing to do with sewerage systems or later part of his career that he excelled. When asked why he chose this topic, he answered as a matter of fact “ Prasad, there was a research assistantship available on this topic and so I opted”.  I met several such people who had a kind of “disconnect” with the Ph D research and later work in practice – but certainly this was not by design.

When I completed my Masters, Professor P Khanna, who was my guide, encouraged me to consider doing a Ph D with him and continue on the campus. My father however had another point of view. He said that I must work for couple of years first and then consider doing a Ph D. His argument was that I must understand the challenges faced in practice. These challenges will inspire and motivate me towards problem solving to get into something meaningful. I followed his advice and joined for the Ph D after two years of work.

[Is doing a Ph D an exercise of problem solving? And should one try to solve problems of today or as anticipated in the future? This is a question for me even today.]

Choosing my research topic for Ph D was however a very interesting experience. I had worked on the topic of “wastewater treatment plant design under uncertainty” as my master’s thesis. So, I thought of taking up a similar topic for Ph D research as an extension of my earlier work.

I thought that this strategy will help me to finish Ph D much faster. To me getting a title of Ph D was more important than what research I would do. My belief was that a Ph D will help me in getting more consulting business and I will be a respected consultant.

Professor Fude, a Chinese American Professor was one of the members of my Ph D research committee. When he heard my logic, he sounded surprised and said “Prasad, let me ask you a question. Which topic in environmental science and engineering you “fear” most, i.e. which topic you have least familiarity or confidence?”.

I said “Air Pollution Professor, I haven’t done much research work on this topic”

Professor Fude gave me a warm smile

“Then Prasad, doesn’t it make a sense that you explore this topic for your doctoral research. You have the opportunity. This is the best time of life to be on the campus” He advised.

Professor Fude’s suggestion sounded simple but had a deep meaning. Looking back, I think that this was a million-dollar advice. Subsequently, I did my doctoral research on air pollution and perhaps I became one of the few hundred experts who understood environment a bit better. Some said that I was a  kind of an “”amphibian”!  Indeed, Chinese philosophy in decision making is different. Interestingly, I completed my Ph D in a period of 26 months. My research got published in 3 parts and in a single issue of the Journal of Environmental Monitoring & Assessment.

When I shared my experience with my Professor Friend, he explained to me that the “process” of completing Ph D was equally important as the “outcomes”

He said “Dr Modak, four years of a Ph D program can be a great experience. Its an opportunity to pause, focus on a challenge, build additional skills, understand how to organize your mind and research methodology, be patient and have a tenacity. Receiving guidance from your Professor in this journey plays a very important role. The ”Guru” matters. But you have to be fortunate”.

“How about your experience on Ph D Professor?” I had to ask this question

Professor lit his cigar

“Well, it was kind of interesting. My Guide was a very reputed and established in the field of astrophysics. He was awfully busy,  and I don’t think he even remembered that I was his Ph D student! He organized for me a table right outside his cabin and every day, he would greet me with a loud yell  “Good morning” as he would enter his office.

Of course, initially, he did spend time with me to discuss the research topic, passed me some of his notes and publications. He (rather his secretary)  did all the required formalities as well. So, I cleared all the formalities and got my candidature.

Once a week, he used to take me out to a pub on the campus and ask me a question after a couple of “bitters”. This question was a repeat in all our beer sessions.

“Buddy, how are you doing on research”

I used to tell him, what I did, what I found interesting and what I was proposing to do.

I don’t think he paid much attention to what I used to tell, and much of what I said used to be muffled in the Elvis songs that were played in the pub as a background

“I am happy that you are progressing”. He used to say this while getting down the tall stool.

I wasn’t happy with this casual attitude towards a serious researcher like me”

I agreed with the Professor. This was certainly unacceptable.

“So, you were practically on your own Professor”. I said this with some anger in my voice.

“Well Dr Modak, let me tell you the full story.

So, yes, I was on my own, I struggled. Sometimes, I even thought of quitting the Ph D program. But I pushed myself hard and continued doggedly”

So, when in the pub, my answer to my Professor was the same

“Doing well Sir, I am getting there”

And his response used to be

“I am confident that one day you surely will”

Actually, after nearly three years of hard work, I thought that I was almost there.

But when I started articulating my thoughts to establish my case i.e. discovering and arguing for my “original contribution”, I realized that I was nowhere there!

I understood that I was working on so many assumptions, was using poor data and applying my not so perfect understanding. I felt I was on a slippery ground. I had a brave face but in my heart of the hearts I wasn’t that confident.

In our weekly pub sessions, my Professor asked me why I was a bit down

I told him that I was not doing that great as I had realized that I now know that I don’t know enough about my research

And I explained to him why I felt so.

My Professor was perhaps waiting for this very moment, or for a kind of candid confession from my side.

He said

“Buddy, you are now reached the inflection point. Stop working further and start writing your thesis. You seem to be in a perfect storm now and I will help you to navigate”

That sounded so reassuring.

He asked for another “bitter”, patted me and said

“When you will get a Ph D, you are confessing to the world that “you seem to know, but still don’t know enough ”. A Ph D is therefore a humbling experience.

Not surprising therefore that you will be awarded a Doctorate in Philosophy”

I then realized why my Professor Friend was a humble person.

But do all Ph D’s are?

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  1. Interesting as all your blogs are. Something similar I tell my students. PhD deserves to be awarded when you reach a logical conclusion to a problem. But more important is the understanding of this fact of life- “More you know, more you would know, what you did not know”.
    To explain further- the thesis ends with some 4-5 recommendations for future work as possible extensions to your PhD work, which you feel can be explored. You knew that you do not know about these extensions because you have added one piece of knowledge during your PhD. Thus the final realization comes that you have done something to earn your PhD but your actual research starts now.
    On a lighter note:
    An advise of my professor that I shared earlier also “If you cannot convince your students, confuse them”!!

  2. Dear Sir,

    As usual there is always so much to learn from you. What you have described about the PhD journey is something we can identify ourselves. Indeed the process of getting a PhD is an humbling experience which teaches us how much little we know and how much more we need to know. It also helps learn how to tackle the ups and downs of life with equanimity.

    Many thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts.



  3. Indeed sir Ph. D is a humbling experience that develop not only technical and analytical skills but mental, emotional, psychological and interpersonal skills also improve. Nice blog.

  4. Ph.D is qualifier for research and problem solving in an orthodox school.There are cases where a nonPh.D guru has produced several Ph.ds of merit.

  5. Excellent points Dr Modak ! I appreciate your thoughts on Phd and it’s attributed. I have some thoughts to share:

    1. My supervisor Mr David Elliott in Newcastle England, was not PhD but anvv BC excellent visionary and expert mathematician.
    2. Once during lunch with him I asked why didn’t he do Phd? He said unhesitatingly, “Oh, Mukesh, I am scared of this degree”! He then clarified further of his scaricity- he said Phd needs, patience(as you mentioned), perseverance, sincerity, consistency, honesty and dedication ( you also mentioned). Any of theses thing if absent in a student it hampers his or her progress. Further while enjoying coffee and England’s staple food fish and chips ( which is now disappeared from most of the places in various towns replaced by samosa and other Indian and Turkish snacks), he said that any one of the above qualities absence further complicates the students thinking and continue to obscure his or her thoughts. I asked if it happens to me what should I do? He very simply said “Mukesh, just leave the office, take a break, go to highlands and spend some time there, you will regain your thought process and you shall see that you will start with double the speed”. I heeded his advice and in between, many occasion I faced such situations, and I used to visit highlands and spend time there walking and enjoying nature. After coming back I felt the same as David described. David used to understand by seeing my face and laughingly used to ask, “how was the break, Mukesh”?. It indeed expedited my PhD work.
    3. I think Phd should not be taken as problem solving expertise. I think it broadens the thinking platform in the mind of a person enabling him or her to come out with various options that can be used to solve that particular problem. That is why a good PhD holder advises his or her student to read as much as possible in first year strengthen the background so that he or she gets confidence of broadening the platform in the mind to discuss with Supervisor.
    4. The last thing – problem identification. David used to say “Mukesh, your inquisitiveness is the most trusted friend in identifying the problem”. This was told in front of Prof A James, who was supposed to be my supervisor (you know him). He was at that time working with University of Roorkee group on River Water Quality Modelling (later Prof Himanshu Joshi now in Department of Hydrology, and a year junior to me, did his PhD in this area having collaboration with A James. Anyway, I then told David that my inquisitiveness is how to protect The Taj Mahal?. And here I agree with your dear father- he was very right when he said to work in field which will create a different platform in your mind, related to field problems (I was working at Taj Mahal under UNEP project with State Pollution Control Board, NEERI and Swedish experts are they time). It gave me a lot of inquisitiveness on air pollution. So it helped me a lot in the end to work on air quality modelling which is an essential part of framing an effective Air Quality Management.

    I apologise for such a long note on your blog which indeed took me to England.
    Thanks Dr Modak.

  6. very interesting article. wish i had spoken to you before i abandoned my PhD after 3 years of hard work.

  7. Superbly shared & written.
    Thank you, Sir

  8. Thank you for this personal story and insight. Unfortunately, not all PhD emerge humble and wiser. How can this similar humility be inculcated in Undergrads and Master’s students?

    Also true that most students have a transactional approach to education–its mostly about getting good gradws so you get a good job, rather than accumulating knowledge, learning life skills and evolving as a person.

  9. As an aspiring phd student, I am taking this article as a piece of advice. I always think that phd is so thrilling with ups and downs. But after reading this article, I am so happy to realize there is a valuable humbling experience that would mold me towards the purpose that I am created for!

  10. Fully agree, PhD makes you humble. The process gives you experience of training your mind on problem solving, gives you courage to experiment and fail/succeed.
    Not all PhDs continue in Academics. If you are not in academics, the humbleness and problem solving helps you. It you are in Academics, the PhD has an altogether different significance. I still remember what once my senior at university told me…. “PhD degree is like a Patloon, in academic circle, everyone wears it. You will be noticed if you do not have one on you.”… In non academic circle probably its a ‘designer patloon’. People notice and you are humble enough to know that it does not give you any advantage.

  11. Yes, the path to PhD is a humbling one. Just before I was to appear for the oral part of my final defense one the professors who was not even in my committee came to wish me.. and among other things had mentioned : “… remember it is as much a test of your attitude. When finally your back is at the wall – how do you react?”. Never forgot that.

    As for knowing that we know little… I had an uncle, an engineer by profession, but who could recite in Persian and Sanskrit. When I had visited him post a hernia operation, he explained me about the condition so well, that the attending doctor said – he wished he had a professor like him in medical school. Similar sentiments was expressed by his architect when he was building a house. He had once told, that as a young man he was very conscious that he was well versed and intelligent. There was an arrogance. More he learnt and more he went deeper, he could understand how little he knew and how humbling it was.

    This blog reminded me of him. Thank you!

  12. Very well explained the situation of phd scholars by way of sharing some candid experiences and generating a light of hope for all phd students. Thank you Dr. Modak for writing this blog.

  13. I came to this blog and it helped me to add few new points to my knowledge. Actually, I am trying to learn new thing wherever I find. Impressive written blog and valuable information shared here.

  14. Superb revealation. After my PhD I used to say to my friends and students, Now I can say I know nothing. This will help on solving any problem afresh.

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