What does it take to get a PhD?

“What does it mean for you to be/earn a PhD?” “What does it take?” I often pose that question to students at various stages.  I think this is an important question one should ask oneself, during/before training (or when you train others) as this will affect the place/environment one chooses, and what they do during that time.

Today I want to focus on my answer to this question, in the hope that it will help current and future students assess their way. I note that my answers are focused on the research heavy environment, naturally in the computational/CS/biomedical area. But some general principles apply nonetheless.

Anyone who has followed my blog even a little would know that as its name implies, I tend to find connections between the Martial Arts and everyday life. In this case, it so happens that I earned my PhD about the same time I earned my black belt and could not help but see the similarities. For one, a black belt can take 5-10yr to get if you train seriously. Also, people from the “outside” think that if you got a black belt you are “a master”, but any serious practitioner knows it’s hardly the case. You get your black belt when you finish your basic training and then you set out on your way to *start* and become a master. It’s a life long journey and what actually matters is the Way, not the target. PhD is pretty much the same, but what you are training for is to be an independent researcher.

But what does it actually mean to finish basic training to become an independent researcher? It means that if you are given a research question you can formulate it, develop methods to tackle it, assess their results/performance, iterate and finally converge to a solution which you are then able to reproduce, write up in a scientific paper, and present. In order to do that you should establish knowledge of the field you work in (what was done, main problems etc.), the techniques used (experimental, computational – does not matter), developing the ability to find what it is you are missing and learn those missing components as part of the process. You should be able to critique your work and others’ and express this clearly. This means for example that you should be learning how to write reviews as a guided process with your PI so by the end of your PhD you can do it well without them. The observed output of this process are talks, papers, reviews etc. but these are byproducts, not the goal. Which is why I don’t like when PhDs are defined by those.

Why is this important? Because if you adopt this view you can take a step back, look at your PhD and think: OK, what am I missing? What haven’t I done yet? What am I relatively weak at? Then start working towards these so by the end of your PhDs you have gotten through the entire “checklist” and feel you can go through the research process by yourself. Too many students seem to be thinking instead along the lines of “I need to get X papers”. They look at the end-point (the black belt, the paper), not the Way, and therefore actually miss the point.

You might be asking yourselves at this point what about other things? Working in a team? Managing/Teaching/Mentoring?

I think these are great to have and try to get my students practice in those as I think it prepares them better for the modern jobs wherever they choose to go. As a student, you can be proactive about it, look for opportunities, emphasize this to your PI/Thesis committee to maximize exposure etc. But strictly speaking, a PhD at the core is about the ability to execute independent research and not these.

So, what about “knowing the landscape of open problems”  that you can consider going after? Learning how to define the questions in the first place? Get funding?

My view is that these are all good things to learn/know, but again they are not part of the PhD definition. After you finish your basic training you go on a postdoc. As a postdoc, you keep learning more techniques/methods (possibly in new areas), and practice your ability to do independent research. By the end of that, you have proved yourself completely capable of independent research, gained knowledge and experience, built a track record and developed the elements mentioned above (mentoring, view of interesting problems etc) so now you are ready to become a PI. Networking, gaining experience in managing projects/people (and your time…;) are all a big plus. You should strive to build those capabilities to make your life easier regardless of whether your stay in Academia or not.

In practice, some come out of their PhD much more mature than others [1]. A good example is my friend and colleague, John Calarco. John was a PhD student when I was a postdoc at the Belncowe lab. He came out of his PhD with a dozen papers including first author papers in obscure journals such as Cell and Nature. Yes, I know it’s not a great metric but the point is he came out of his PhD with a view, a vision of what he wants to do. He became a Bauer Fellow at Harvard, which meant running his own small lab for a limited time (4 years) with guaranteed funding, and recently got a PI position back at UofT. I see John as a great example of rare maturity at the end of a PhD. I, for one, was not even close to that when I finished my PhD. I did not even know what I wanted to do when I grow up (still working on that one… ;).  All I knew at the time was that *if* I ever wanted to become a PI (and that was a very big if), then I should do a postdoc. So I went looking for a good place for a postdoc (that’s a topic for another post). However, I did get my good basic training at the dojo of my Sensei, I mean advisor, Nir Friedman. And btw, as I noted in a previous blog, “Sensei” does not mean “Master”, it literally translates as “that who has come before”, pointing to the endless chain we create by training the next generation.

So, my view is that if at the end of your PhD you don’t have a comprehensive plan/view of research problems, how to get funding etc. that’s OK. You should not stress about that. But make sure you get your basic training right. Generally speaking, you will *not* get that chance as a postdoc, where you are expected to deliver. Getting your base is intimately linked to choosing an advisor who is a good fit – see a recent post about that from the great Eleazar Eskin here. Regardless, and even if you do not agree with some/all of my points, I hope the above discussion got you thinking and helps you on your “Way” of PhD training or training others!


[1] My impression is that students in biomedical fields are generally more mature in that respect than the typical CS ones. Not sure why – maybe it has to do with the time CS students spend on technical abilities, maybe it’s their nature, maybe it’s the culture – I really don’t know, but that has been my general impression through the years.