What is a PhD anyway?

Starting on a PhD project, every PhD student will have some ideas about what a PhD entails, but most never get to explicitly investigate how they actually conceptualize it. Do you consider your PhD a process, or a product? Is it your life’s work, a stepping stone, an academic ritual…? Your answer to the question ‘What is a PhD anyway?‘ has a far-reaching influence on your definition of success, on your motivation and self-confidence, on how you engage with your research project, not to mention how it influences the way you position yourself with respect to others both during and after your PhD.

Recently, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, KNAW for short, organized an event for its PhD candidates, themed How to Grow a PhD. As part of this event, I facilitated short Socratic conversations on the phenomenon of the PhD. Starting point was the question What is a PhD anyway? This is a summary of one of these conversations.

We started out by listing the initial intuitions of all participants, followed by a brief round of questions for clarification:

  • a PhD is a masterpiece of a craftsman that qualifies him/her for membership of the academic guild
  • a PhD is the coolest job: pragmatically speaking it allows for much flexibility (e.g. with respect to caring for small children) and it contains lots of possibilities for learning and professional development.
  • a PhD is a training to be an independent researcher
  • a PhD means to think
  • a PhD is a process of self-realization as an independent researcher: it involves creative and ingenious self-expression which is not purely rational. Not all questions are determined in advance.

After a vote the group decided to further investigate the statement that a PhD means to think. Elucidating his statement, the PhD candidate said that this thinking of a PhD occurs when you

  1. formulate a hypothesis,
  2. draw conclusions from your data and results, and
  3. interpret these conclusions by translating them and putting them in a broader context of scientific and societal issues.

Another participant, let’s call him Chris, offered a specific case which exemplifies to him how a PhD means to think: “The other day I did some archival research to find numbers on army strength at a specific time and place. I was looking for numbers and found them. These are results.”

The group proceeded with a Socratic investigation of this example. With questions about facts, without assumptions and normative ideas in the background, participants clarified the case until they could fully project themselves into the situation from the example. Then, each participant concluded for him/herself whether this is a case of thinking as meant in the PhD and why / why not.

  • no, because Chris did not draw conclusions
  • no, because in this example there is no interpretation of the data
  • yes, because Chris had a reason to look for these numbers, i.e. to check a hypothesis about historical events
  • no, because data collection differs from “PhD-thinking”. “PhD thinking” is about larger links and connections, about providing direction and pushing science forward
  • yes, because Chris evaluated the number he found, he weighed it

These conclusions led to a fierce debate about the objectivity of data collection. Counting and finding numbers, participants argued, should happen as objective and unprejudiced as possible, ‘blind’. This is crucial for scientific research. However, this quasi mechanical counting can easily be outsourced and is therefor explicitly not essential to the kind of thinking implied in the PhD.

At the end of the hour all participants agreed that a PhD involves a special kind of thinking, but the exact nature of this thinking left us puzzled. This Socratic conversation stimulated deeper thinking on the phenomenon of the PhD, participants indicated: it provided food for thought. Their found it provocative, interesting, and stimulating .


If you are interested in organizing a Socratic conversation on a topic relevant to early career researchers, I invite you to take a look at the Workshop Socratic Questioning at my services page.



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