Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What is a PhD?

[Caption: Managing time by preparing plates for experiments after a dinner party]

I am now at the beginning of my second year of my PhD and I am beginning to get a deeper understanding of the purpose of a PhD. I took up a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to research in microbiology at the Biochemistry Department at the University of Cambridge. When I first arrived, I had grand visions, to say the least, of using this opportunity to change the world, to make an impact in social and economic development. You're probably thinking that I have different interests from microbiology, but I have a vision where science and service for the advancement of civilization go hand in hand.

But back to the question of this post, 'What is a PhD?' I realized that I'm still quite young and require further training and preparation to be able to provide a meaningful contribution toward the social and economic development of the world. And this led me to realize that in order to manage a huge task like that, the PhD is equipping me with skills needed to do that by giving me training in project management. Therefore, a PhD is essentially training in project management. Up until now, through high school and undergraduate university, I've been taking classes to gain a foundation of knowledge and skills to be able to apply what I've learned toward a problem in order to come up with a meaningful solution. Along the way there were a few small projects, both on an individual and group level, to gain practice in applying those skills to solving projects.

But a PhD is essentially the first opportunity where I was a given a large project with a relatively long term time scale of 3-4 years to which I was given full responsibility to manage and carry it out, and for which I would be held fully accountable for my work and results by professionals in the field in the viva examination at the end. During this time I will learn how to be independent, adapt to different personalities along the way such as my supervisor and lab colleagues, and develop a system to manage an accumulating and large amount of information that I will have to synthesize into a coherent report, the thesis. This thought process is comforting especially if someone feels their project is uninteresting, for they can find motivation to carry on their project by seeing a greater goal beyond it.

At the end of the PhD, I will most likely get a job where I will be given another project to tackle another problem and come up with a solution. If you haven't already guessed it by now, you can see that a PhD looks like training to be a consultant. Of course this is based on what I understand at the moment in the second year of my PhD which is variable to change. But I suspect it is for this reason that top management consulting companies recruit PhD students, because consultants manage a variety of projects and the PhD is the first real training a student receives in project management. Perhaps some will say that a masters degree fulfills the same criteria. Well, perhaps that is true but I came into the PhD directly from an undergraduate degree. I did have two years of undergraduate research experience but the PhD is a significantly expanded project management experience.

And having done a year of research in Kuwait in 2007 on a Fulbright Scholarship where I researched the values of Kuwaiti youth to women's rights, that experience appears quite similar to my PhD in microbiology, a completely different field, when looked at the in the light that both were essentially training in project management where I was learning a key set of skills:
  • Developing a focused research question.
  • Managing accumulating and large amounts of information.
  • Synthesizing information and facts into meaningful insights.
  • Learning to adapt to and collaborate with different personalities.
I will end here now for my first post. Perhaps in a later post I will discuss how I plant to integrate my various interests in the future and how they overlap.

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