Marketing for Scientists

Why Getting a Ph.D. Should Be A Let Down

Did you go to a thesis defense this spring? Last time I attended one I had some strange thoughts about how we reward each other in this crazy business of science that I thought you might find amusing.

The defense went well. He passed! Then, champagne in hand, I found myself telling this new Ph.D. to make sure you plan yourself a vacation. Because getting a Ph.D. sure can be a let down.

A let down?

Free Images : university, graduation, success, student, academic dress,  scholar, phd, robe, headgear, mortarboard, outerwear, sitting 6016x4000 -  Hsengkeungmurng99 - 1610927 - Free stock photos - PxHere

A doctoral degree is a touchstone of learning, a pinnacle of education, a rare prize we award only to those who spend years mastering a subject until they complete a major piece of research that pushes the boundary of our knowledge forward in a grand and glorious way.

But I found myself saying that it’s a let down.

This is why. By the time you get your degree…you’ve already moved on. Half of the papers that are in your thesis were published years ago. You’re well aware of their inadequacies, and you’re thinking about the next problems in your field. You’ve likely accepted a new position somewhere, and you probably think of yourself as a postdoc now.

When I thought of this I was momentarily angry at the educational system. Why can’t we reward researchers better for their toil? Why can’t we give them the positive feedback when they need it, instead of months and months later?

But then it occurred to me that the way we do it is the right way after all. Maybe getting a Ph.D. SHOULD be a let down.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Whatever else you do with yourself in science, you won’t get rewarded–if you ever get rewarded–for months and month, maybe years. You might write the best paper of your life, but you won’t find out till at least the following year, when everyone at the conference you’re at lines up to criticize it. You might be doing Nobel-prize-worthy work, even, but you won’t get that Nobel untill you’re 60. Scientists never get the right credit at the right time! So the sense of disappointment that comes when you get a Ph.D. is training for everything else that comes afterwards. You’d better learn to plan your own celebration, plan your own vacation, pat yourself on the back when you’ve done a good job.

Ultimately, you’ve got to do science to please yourself, not someone else. When you get your Ph.D. is probably a good time to learn that one last solemn lesson.

What do you think? Should getting a Ph.D. feel like an anticlimax? As scientists, do we give each other proper credit for our work? Do you wish you could change the system?

Marc Kuchner