Today whilst reading twitter I read an advert by a newly graduated PhD student offering tutorship to current PhD students. Their advert was based on that they had finished their PhD early, had written a bunch of papers and got a follow up post-doc job. All very impressive.

I only saw this advert because of the comments on the advert where people wonder how this amazing tutoring was going to solve their actual problems in their research.

“How much tutoring do I need to make supervisor un-quit and allow me to finish my work?”

“Does the tutor magically make all my results work out?”

“Can you re-open my lab and un-kill my cells?”

Now I don’t think those people were trying to take anyway from the person making the original advert. I don’t know them and I’m sure they are a very impressive person and deserve everything they’ve achieved in life. But I very much agree with the commentators, some things in a PhD are beyond even the most brilliant tuition. Sometimes no amount go hard work and brilliance can solve all that can happen in a PhD.

For example here are three stories of three PhDs. All of which are entirely true and based on real people.

The first had an amazing project that was well funded, partly by a company and partly by the university. The project during the first year was going great but one of the key outputs didn’t work out as modelled and so the project needed to refocus. The company decided that this was now not worth their time, pulled all support and equipment time. This meant the student now couldn’t get the next set of results and needed to make further sacrifices and changes to the project as no other equipment was available in the labs. By the end their project looked nothing like it did at the start and they had to present a thesis based on a handful of results that didn’t give them the unique data they needed nor fit well together.

The second started a project at a lab that had previously specialised in a single technique but was looking to get started in something new and had devised a project that crossed over into a new field. The first experiment that had been planned out by the supervisor went exactly as predicted and in their first year they published a paper outlining the new technique. In the student’s second year they published many further papers setting new firsts with the technique. By the third year they had published a patent on the technique with their supervisor and won an award. Before the PhD was finished new funding had been secured for their first research job.

Third was a student that was studying an amazing project that required tracking animals for a year. The first two years of preparation and research went great and the student had prepared all the background needed to support their theories which they would prove with animal tracking. Their supervisor arranged for them to live on a boat for 9 months to do the tracking. Sadly for them the area where the boat went had an unexpected change in weather system and for 12 months not one of the animals went into the region they were mapping. They returned home to present a thesis with zero results and only background research on existing mapping.

Now I know the people in these stories fairly well. They were all equally brilliant and their chosen field, all hard working, all (in my opinion) deserving of a PhD and numerous accolades.

But as you might note not all of them achieved the same end result and not all of them achieved it with the same level of ease nor the same number of well rested nights.

Again I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the people that archive brilliant things. All I wanted to highlight was that sometimes all the brilliance in the world can’t save you from a pod of whales choosing to winter somewhere else that year.

Science is hard even when a degree isn’t on the line. A good PhD needs so many things to align in just the right way. You need a project that is well designed, you need a supervisor that doesn’t have any career changes in the 3-4 years you are with them, you need to not have random university reorganisations shut down your lab, you need to not study something with any risk or variability (sadly that rules out ALL science).

So if you judge someone by their PhD output then you need to remember that you’re judging them a bit on their writing skill, a bit on their science acumen and a lot on how lucky they were.

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4 Comments

Vicky Howe · 7 April 2023 at 09:50

This is very true. It also depends on what field you’re in. I did my PhD in a lab that worked with cell culture models where it was very easy (and quick) to do experiments and get a lot of results. I’m now doing a postdoc in a plant biology lab where, if you need to make a plant line to do experiments, you need need to wait at least 3x plant generations of ~2 months each. And that’s assuming everything works. All I can say is, I’m glad I got to do a PhD in Petri dishes

Alokmay Datta · 7 April 2023 at 12:15

Unfortunately, a PhD is not making a person better by any means. It doesn’t help developing a better understanding of the area they have worked on, in the sense that they can place it in the broader picture or use the skill and knowledge gathered to take things to any higher level. It doesn’t make the person more rational or broad-minded. If anything, the process is making people more cocooned and narrow, focusing only on the particular research area. The bankruptcy of creative research is becoming glaring when researchers use AI to get ideas and plan studies and experiments.

    Anonymous · 11 April 2023 at 18:24

    Before you make any comments about Ph.D., you first need to understand different areas are different. For example, in mathematics, especially pure math, most of the people ( even the top one) don’t have enough time to study all different fields. Even in the same field, different problems need different techniques and backgrounds. Essentially, there doesn’t exist a uniform theory or way to solve every problems in a filed. To solve a hard problem, people always need to design specific method based on the particular problem. This is the beauty of research and why most of the research is not trivial. If you can understand this, it’s not hard to imagine people might seem narrow after they become a Ph.D. Although they seem narrow, the Ph.D. training won’t take away the creativity that they have. If they want, they can still solve all the “trivial” problems.

    Stavros · 11 April 2023 at 21:26

    I see the point but at the same time we have to judge research by progress and success.
    Are you really that great if nothing works and you don’t solve any of your problems by year 3 or 4 or 5?
    Hence, when you work on a subject (or a few subjects closely related to one another) and don’t manage to publish anything or enough then I personally feel that you haven’t managed the core essence of a PhD which is to provide new knowledge to science through peer reviewed journal publications.
    And sure, quantity is not over quality BUT most PhDs who barely manage to publish one paper only, they do not publish their research to SCIENCE or NATURE…
    So why not accept the fact that research is a very difficult job and is not suited for everyone?

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