BE Board:Dinner Discussion/5 Things to Gain from a Ph.D.

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This is a draft version of the one page summary for the 2006 BE Retreat.

5 things to gain from a PhD

A little internet searching will give you a general feel for the perception of PhD degrees over the last ten years. Some people believe PhD degrees overemphasize novel individual research preparing students for academic positions which may not be available. Others believe the world needs highly educated scientists and engineers to push innovation forward outside of academics to solve problems such as fossil fuel depletion, bird flu, and global warming. Both emphasize a need for students to have versatile skill sets in order to pursue a variety of career paths. Does this require a reevaluation of the PhD process? As the traditional boundaries in skill sets and expectations among workers become increasingly blurred, a PhD employed in industry may be hired to lead any significant R&D effort. While the research maybe second nature after struggling through graduate school, do any graduate students have the other required skills such as personal management, clear communication skills, and the foresight to know what makes a product successful?

The classical objective of a PhD is to demonstrate the ability to do novel research. Implicit in this objective may be the goal for the student to learn “to think.” But at least from the perspective of a current student, I don’t see this concept explicitly being taught and only occasionally indirectly evaluated in the classroom. If students specifically acquired both critical thinking skills to evaluate a problem and generate solutions as well as information mining skills to find the appropriate resources to evaluated and implement the solutions, perhaps this would grant them the flexibility they need to be successful at any endeavor. But can these types of thinking skills be taught? Should PhD programs be adding such a concept to their curriculum or is it already an implicit part of the PhD process?

As graduate students, we spend a considerable amount of time at MIT attempting to better ourselves for the "real world." But, what should we be getting out of graduate school besides a diploma to frame? What are we getting out of this experience? Are there skills we should be acquiring now that will be essential as we enter academia, or industry, or change fields entirely? Are the skills we learn a set of non-transposable methodologies which may be obsolete as technology advances? Should there be a greater emphasis on a solid theoretical framework? What will the world expect from us after we graduate? Does MIT have defined expectations for a student getting a PhD? Are these expectations consistent across institutions?

Possible skills to get from a PhD:

  • Time/ project management
  • Learning to learn
  • Learn to think/problem solve
  • UROP management
  • Learn to do research
  • Teaching
  • Communication skills
  • Confidence to pursue a novel endeavor
  • Networking skills
  • Collaborations
  • Finding and assimilating information
  • Working as part of a team
  • Overall versatility in the workplace
  • An MIT degree

“The value of learning backward” May 31, 2002
“The PhD: A Tapestry of Change for the 21st Century”
“Intellectual Entrepreneurship: A Vision for Graduate Education”


Additional Advice

(The following is a modified version of the a document produced by Cathy Drennan, Associate Professor in the Dept of Chemistry at MIT.)

MIT trains scientific leaders, not technicians.
To get the most out of your MIT PhD, you should do the following:

  1. Take ownership of your project. You should know more about your project than anyone else.
    • You should know the background information about your project better than anyone else.
    • You should know the caveats of your research better than anyone else. In general, don't use programs as black boxes. Don't follow protocols without understanding what you are doing.
    • Learn how to educate yourself.
    • Work the hours it takes to move your project along (if this means working harder than someone else who has an easier project, then work harder). If this means working weekends, work weekends.
  2. Don't get too focused. Read the literature, attend seminars, and take classes. An MIT PhD graduate should be broadly educated.
    • Attend relevant seminars in your field and related fields. Sign up to have lunch with speakers.
  3. Learn how to train people. If you want only to do research with your own two hands, you shouldn't be getting a PhD. People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation.
    • Train undergraduate students.
  4. Learn how to write scientific papers, and learn how to give scientific talks. No matter what you do with your life, it is important to know how to do this. You should take the lead in writing papers based on your research. As the first author, you should have checked and double checked every reference, crossed every t, dotted every i, have the journal format instructions committed to memory. You should know the paper's content inside and out. You should be the expert.
  5. Be organized, keep a good notebook and organized computer directories. Someday someone will take over your project and that person will need to be able to repeat or follow what you did (example, don't call a file "current.wiff." Instead call it "standards_121505.wiff"). Science is good science only if it can be repeated and understood. Organizational skills will benefit you in any job you have.
  6. Position yourself to get good letters of reference. Recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else. Do the best job you can do on your oral exams and on presentations (seminars, group meetings, etc) so that letter writers have good things to say. Other faculty won't take the time to read your papers, so you need to impress them with your thesis and with your presentations. Also, treat your advisor with respect.
  7. Be a good citizen of the lab and the department. Research is about teamwork. Show that you can get along well with others, and help out when the situation calls for it.