10 Things I Learned From Doing a PhD (So Far)


Written by: Danny Ardianto*

I’ve just completed my first PhD milestone at Monash University a couple of weeks ago (another way of saying I’ve spent 12 months into my study). There are a number of things I’ve learned during my first year that I thought I could share with some aspiring PhD students out there or anyone interested in finding out what a PhD study entails. My PhD experience might be different from others, so it might not be relevant to some people. Okay, so here is the list:

1.     Your research topic is slightly unimportant

Many people want to do a PhD because they want to change the world. This can be done through the groundbreaking research they do and the extent of its contribution to human knowledge. While this is certainly plausible, you are not required to do so. A mildly interesting topic is enough to start a PhD so long as it hasn’t been done before and is sufficient to keep you motivated for 3-4 years time.

A PhD is intended to train you to become an independent researcher who are capable of doing sound academic research. The knowledge you gain from your research area is only a bonus to your expertise. What’s more critical is how you’ve done it. Of course you don’t want to waste your time researching something that is of no use to your life. This is why the selection of research topic is still important. But, in an area like IT where most things are obsolete within 3-5 years, it doesn’t matter what you do in your research. It’s more important to be flexible in terms of research topic if you want to continue to have a research career.

2.     A PhD is a research training, not a gateway to being a boss

In Indonesia, particularly in a government institution, it is often assumed that the higher your degree is the more likely you are to take up the top job (e.g., Director Generals, Ministers). I despise this assumption. Surely people will think if you’re smart enough to finish a PhD then you probably are smart enough to run the government. But, a good leader does not only need to be smart. He has to be an effective manager in addition to having visionary leadership. And this is something that is not specifically tailored to in a PhD study. A good leader may or may not have a PhD to his name. A PhD graduate may have the qualities of being a good problem solver, but leadership is something else. Whether or not he is a good leader does not depend on the possession of a PhD title.

3.     Knowledge is nothing but a consensus

Knowledge is not necessarily a fact. Everyone thought the earth was the center of the universe until Copernicus proved that they were wrong. This shows that any thing can become knowledge provided they are agreed upon by others. We can be totally wrong about something until it is proven otherwise. In many cases, research is a matter of providing justification to the claim of knowledge that you make. Okay, this gets too philosophical. But, this is fundamental for a PhD study. You don’t just do experiments and write the results without understanding what they mean to human knowledge. Human is after all bound by limitations.

4.     You don’t have to be brilliant to do a PhD

Good news for anyone feeling I’m not bright enough to do a PhD. Of course being brilliant will help making your PhD more bearable. But, it’s not the ultimate requirement. The more important thing is to always have curiosity in your mind. A PhD student should not take anything for granted, even if it comes from your supervisors. You need to constantly ask “Why?” and find the justification on your own. Remember, knowledge is a consensus and you may disagree with anything that has been said by others as long as you can provide valid justification. This is probably a skill that is not widely celebrated in Indonesian academic culture.

5.     Not everyone needs a PhD

The traditional view in Indonesia is everyone should get himself educated as high as he can. If there’s more education degree beyond PhD, someone might want to do that. I am against this view. Yes, maybe the country needs more PhD to improve its national competitiveness in terms of research. But, not everyone needs to do a PhD. Depends on what your career aspiration is, you may not need a PhD. I’d say there are more jobs in the world that don’t need a PhD than the ones that do. This includes most jobs in a government department. Doing a masters degree is probably enough to broaden one’s horizon and make a good career.

6.     A PhD does not guarantee a better future (financially)

Having a PhD to your name does not necessarily mean better prospects of getting rich. In fact, research has shown that the return on investment is considerably lower than doing a masters degree. But, most people doing PhD do not intend to be super rich. although they don’t want to be poor either. As with any other degrees, what matters is not the degree itself but what you are going to do with it. Some PhDs have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs, while a few of them were unlucky to become a taxi driver. Mind you, this applies to anyone doing formal education. Having a degree nowadays does not mean you are more likely to be successful.

7.     Your passion for research should not stop at your PhD

Many people think that your PhD research should be grandiose, a masterpiece of your lifetime. Again, this is not true. If I were doing a PhD about mainframe computing in the 1960s, I’d probably laugh at what I’ve found in my research centuries ago because it’s totally irrelevant now. In contrary, a PhD should lead you to more intriguing ideas that you can investigate in your life post-PhD. Like a wedding, it should not stop at the ceremony, it should lead you to more enlightening ideas about life and family.

8.     Intellectual freedom is probably the best part of PhD

Having an office space and perhaps the latest gears in personal computing can be awesome for a PhD student. But the joy of doing PhD probably comes from the intellectual freedom you now have. If you are a bored government employee in Indonesia dealing with bureaucracy time after time, you might want to refresh your mind and start reading, investigating, and writing anything you like without limit. You will find that the world is much more interesting than the shitty news and flaming comments you normally found in TVOon and the likes. If you like giving yourself a challenge and finding out your limit in terms of intellectual thinking, PhD is a good way to go.

9.    Publication is a big thing

Now that you’ve immersed yourself in a multitude of ideas and execute your own, don’t let your fruitful thinking goes away with no trace. In order to contribute to human knowledge, your thinking needs to be validated by senior researchers in your field. This is where publication plays a role in form of journal articles, conference papers, book chapters, and many others. The idea is to get your results heard and valued by the research communities. Even if you’re not interested in becoming an academic researcher later on, publishing your PhD results is still worthwhile. You will feel worthy as a researcher knowing that others think your research is important and valid.

10.  Doing a PhD can be a fulfilling lifetime experience

Doing a PhD is often synonymous with hardworking, earning below standard income, feeling lonely and clueless, and sacrificing other good things in life. Your friends might get promotion in their job while you’re suffering from painstakingly writing thesis chapters. But hey, “true fulfillment comes only after overcoming significant and meaningful challenges (Guo, 2011). It’s fulfilling because even if you decide not to do research anymore after PhD, you’ve proved to yourself that you can overcome one of the biggest intellectual challenges known to human history. Of course you can go to war in a military uniform or decide to build a start-up company to prove that you can overcome such challenges. PhD is not the only way to push yourself beyond mental limits. But, it’s probably a safer environment that can make you emerge stronger and wiser.

*Danny is a PhD candidate in IT Department Monash University. He is a member of MIIS 2014 committee.
** This article first appeared in Danny’s Facebook Note: https://www.facebook.com/zidanie
*** Image was taken from http://www.stockvault.net

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