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The Truth Behind the Ph.D
One citizen reporter shares her graduate student story
C.H.L. George (aeogae)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-04 10:25 (KST)   
My cousin's girlfriend works for a London recruiting agency. "Oh yes" She said to me. "We see quite a few Ph.Ds and there's always something quirky about them. Don't take offence but there's a fine line between genius and nuttiness."

I wasn't offended. Since starting my Ph.D in 2001 I have heard all sorts of things said about Ph.D students.

Misconceptions abound. Many people I know imagine that a Ph.D is like an undergraduate degree for twenty-something work shy layabouts.

Then there are those who think that Ph.D students are staggeringly clever but eccentric individuals who wear tweed jackets and earnestly discuss philosophy while smoking pipes.

The reality is very different.

In the three and a half years I spent writing my thesis at an English university I met Ph.D students from around the world. They were as diverse as flakes of snow.

I met a plain-spoken Kenyan mother studying business, a middle-aged former pub chef turned engineer, a Taiwanese university lecturer, a 21-year-old biologist from Liverpool and a former American soldier. These are to name just a few of the hundreds of Ph.Ds I came across.

The one thing we had in common was that we were labeled as students when our lives were most unlike those of undergraduates.

The Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary defines a student firstly as "a person following a formal course of study, especially in further education." It then goes on to add that "a student of something" is a "person with an informed interest in a subject."

As a history Ph.D I did not follow a formal course of study and in fact did not attend a single lesson.

In my first year I identified an area of history that had never been researched before. I formulated questions that needed to be asked of it, I then found as much evidence as I could before learning how to coherently present and discuss my findings in an 80,000 word thesis.

My experience is typical of British Ph.Ds in the humanities and social sciences. I was only a student in the loosest sense that I was learning about something. The term researcher would be a more accurate description.

All Ph.Ds in Britain have one, two or three supervisors. The supervisor's role is not clearly laid out at a national level so there are considerable variations depending on subject area, personality, professional ethics and other individual circumstances.

In general terms a supervisor is meant to meet with the student at regular stages throughout the Ph.D process. The frequency of meetings often increases towards the end of the Ph.D.

A supervisor is not a teacher but rather a guide and collaborator. In the beginning a good supervisor recommends books and articles that will help the student identify a research area.

By the end the student should know more about their specialist subject than their supervisor does. At this point the supervisor advises on the technical aspects of thesis writing and acts as a sounding board for arguments. They are there to say things like "Mmm, do you really think that makes sense?" or "Do you realise that you're contradicting what you said in chapter two?"

The collaboration between a supervisor and student is vital for the success of a Ph.D. Supervisors use their own experience of writing Ph.Ds, books and articles to advise their students.

A Ph.D thesis is usually the student's first attempt at writing a piece of text that is equal to a book in size. Like learning to read or swim or drive a car it is something that seems impossible in the beginning but eventually adds immeasurably to a person's skills and confidence.

All Ph.Ds hand in their theses knowing that they can create large research projects from nothing and manage them. They also know that they can write swathes of text, and that they can collaborate with older, more experienced people.

When a Ph.D is described in those terms it is easy to draw parallels between it and the worlds of business and government where trainees also learn how to work as a team and create and manage large projects.

I hope I have made it clear that researching a Ph.D thesis not only provides you with valuable skills but is also an experience far removed from the stereotypes I outlined at the beginning of this article.

The stereotypes persist because relatively few people do Ph.Ds and so they are not a widely understood qualification. If you have a Ph.D or have taken a similar course you have to learn to explain to employers what it is and how it makes you employable.

If you have studied subjects that are perceived as obscure or over specialized it is best to leave that until the end of the interview or job application. Outside academia the fact that you studied later 17th-century newspaper advertisements (as I did), medieval monasticism or Joseph Conrad is less important than the skills that you developed in the process.

My cousin's girlfriend's observation of Ph.D students only fell into stereotyping insofar that she believed that they were geniuses. The vast majority of Ph.Ds are of average intelligence. However, I am sure that she is right to say that they often do come across as a little different.

Studying for a Ph.D is a bit like teaching English abroad, working on an oil rig or being in the merchant navy. It is an unusual experience that does change the way that people think and behave.

Being stereotyped as a lazy student or eccentric pipe smoking academic is a salutary experience. It has shown me that when you stereotype someone you don't listen to the realities of their life. It makes me wonder whether I've stereotyped anyone recently and what I can do to maintain a more open mind.
©2006 OhmyNews

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