, , , , ,

At the outset, I don’t think people with Ph.Ds are smarter and brighter than those without. For the most part, they are luckier in that they had access to opportunity and wherewithal to spend many more years studying. To those who would disagree, I suggest comparing the situation of the average grad student to that of a child born into an impoverished laborer’s family in rural India or to a slum-dweller. Surely majority of Ph.D. holders are born into more fortunate material and cultural circumstances. While not minimizing my own drive and ambition, I consider myself much more fortunate than most even though I’m the first in my entire extended family to get a Ph.D. My mom was a high school graduate and could have studied more. Her obstacle was the prevailing culture, not material circumstance, something she mitigated actively when it came to her own child, me. The world over, there are probably thousands of unsung pioneers like her who quietly help change the status quo.

In my experience, a Ph.D. is primarily a test for endurance, not so much for intelligence or intellect. Endurance as in capacity to stay the course with respect to the same project for years on end, an example of delayed gratification.

From endurance, let’s move onto general habits and skills that a Ph.D. could inculcate. I say could not should because as with anything else in life, the final outcome depends on individual agency, the unique ‘Masala‘ each one of us brings to the table of life.

  • One is the reinvigoration of a childlike sense of curiosity.
  • Another is a need for answers. Why, as in why is something just so, why does it function that way?
  • A capacity for critical thinking should be a given with a Ph.D. but unfortunately, standards vary so widely that it can’t be taken for granted. Any Indian who has watched Jaspal Bhatti‘s TV shows would understand. In one he played a college professor who sorted out many of his household problems through the captive labor of his hapless Ph.D. student.
  • Above all, a Ph.D. could endow the ability to seek and find information, especially specialized information on the subject of one’s choice.
  • I separate out seek and find because in my experience they are separable. A need to seek information is not a default trait by any stretch of the imagination, even in a person with a Ph.D.

To my mind, the habits and skills that a Ph.D. could inculcate are shared by at least three other lines of pursuit, the law, criminal investigation and hobbies. Comparing what I as a Ph.D. do and how I do it, I find compelling similarities to the work of lawyers, detectives and hobbyists.

  • Both law and science share the norm of referring to past specialist literature. In the case of science, a scientist digs into past data similar to the way a lawyer digs into past lawsuits to find precedents and stitch together a compelling and plausible case. Read any scientific paper and one sees a similar process at play in the Introduction and Discussion as the authors use past studies to lay out the basis and justifications for their own study and its results.
  • A scientist’s quest to find an answer, parsing and analyzing data, looking for clues, is similar to the work of a detective.
  • A committed hobbyist embodies many of the habits that a Ph.D. degree should endow but often doesn’t because as with anything else, the Ph.D. can become a means to an end, just as the college degree itself has become a means to an end, that end being perceived better prospects in the job market.