The paradigm of the PhD process

Matt Might writes some great material on his blog about what it means to earn a PhD and his experiences in academic science. I’ve learned a lot reading his posts and I recommend it highly. One of my favorite articles is “The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.” He talks about the Ph.D process and how that moves a student to the edge of human knowledge.

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I was thinking about this in terms of paradigms. The typical student paradigm will get a person through a bachelors. I think it’s natural for students to approach their education as absorbing all the amazing knowledge that has been accumulated by humans.It’s like learning recipes that have been handed down for generations. These recipes work well, and learning them is very satisfying. They always produce good results.

The paradigm that gets a person to the edge of human knowledge is very different. As a student approaches the edge, everything gets less certain. The recipes stop working well. Sometimes they don’t work at all. It requires a lot of critical thinking to understand what recipes are applicable to your particular situation. It takes a lot of patience and failure to invent the right recipes.

But the paradigm of “learn the recipe, produce the result” will be deeply disheartening. That paradigm worked really well in the early years. At the edges of human knowledge, that paradigm will make the world feel hostile and cruel. It will feel like every paper is a trap with the key bits left out just to screw with the unwary student who tries to replicate the result.

The new paradigm is that everything is uncertain. Every uncertainty is an opportunity to bring experiment, observation, and ingenuity to bear. That is a hard and overwhelming perspective at first. Everything is uncertain? Yes. I think that’s a useful world-view for people to adopt.