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.
“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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