WHAT A PhD IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT

By Prof. Dr. Jamal Hisham Hashim

Visiting Professor at United Nations University- IIGH

Former Professor of Environmental Health at National University Malaysia

 

After having completed a PhD degree myself, and having supervised, co-supervised and examined a number of PhD students over the years, I would like to offer some humble advice and pointers to those aspiring to pursue a PhD degree themselves. I find that many Malaysians misunderstood the purpose of getting a PhD degree and the commitments and sacrifices that it calls for.

A PhD is the highest academic and research degree from a university. I have seen both remarkable successes and disappointing failures amongst students pursuing this academic accolade. It takes more than just brain power to complete a PhD.

A degree by research is very different from a degree by coursework. A course degree whether at the undergraduate or masters level is heavily structured. A student just have to be disciplined and rigorous in following this predetermined structure regimentally, without much creativity required from him or her. Of course, creativity is demanded from the student in completing assignments and projects but the demand is nothing close to what is required for a PhD degree.

The most important prerequisites for pursuing a successful PhD program are passion, inquisitiveness, creativity, discipline, persistence, perseverance and meticulousness (or attention to detail). I did not mention intelligence not because it is not important, but because it is less important than the other attributes I mentioned. At least, it is in my book. Others may feel differently. Of those many attributes, I consider passion the most important. Some students start out enthusiastically but loses steam halfway through or towards the end. They lack passion or the love of knowledge. Ever heard of the saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going?” Success in a PhD is simply that. The harder it becomes, the harder you will strive. Sometimes, you do not see the light at the end of the tunnel but you still keep looking for it because you know it is there. When you love what you do, failure is not an option.

Some people do PhD for the wrong reasons. Some take up postgraduate because they could not secure a job after their first or second degree. Some do it because the jobs they have taken up require them to acquire a PhD, for e.g. an academic or a research post. These cannot be the sole reason for pursuing a PhD. You cannot force yourself to do a PhD. You must want to do it badly enough. You cannot force yourself to love something; you must love or want something bad enough to force yourself to get it.

The PhD is an academic journey. There will be failures but mainly successes along your way. You may encounter some foes but mainly friends in the same boat as yourself. It always helps to be in a group of students to share both your setbacks and achievements. Working alone in a silo is the worst you can do to yourself. There are certain things you want to discuss with your fellow students that you cannot discuss with your supervisor; matters that are either academic or personal.

Your supervisor is your mentor, guide and consultant, not your teacher. He cannot teach you your PhD knowledge, you have to teach yourself through his guidance and wisdom. He is more your friend than he is your master. He does not dictate to you what you must do, he merely points you in the right direction. At the end of your PhD journey, you would have been more knowledgeable on the subject of your research than your supervisor. I have heard of students not being able to complete their PhD because they could not get along or see eye to eye with their supervisor. This is the worst scenario that can happen to you. If you do not have a supervisor you can work with, you will not get your PhD no matter how good you are or how hard you work. So, choose your supervisor well, not just the university you want to do your PhD in. Just a few months back, I met a doctoral graduate who told me that to be supervised by this one professor carries more prestige among his peers in the working world.

A PhD degree needs sacrifices, especially when you are a family person; a wife, mother, husband or dad. Family is always important and should always be your priority. However, you and your family members must be willing to make sacrifices that are necessary. There can be no gain without pain. That is why when you finally get your PhD degree, your family members can even be happier and more proud of you than you yourself, because it is as much their accomplishment as it is yours. Their sacrifices must be duly appreciated.

So what does it mean when you have a Dr. before your name? Does it mean that you are an expert on a certain subject matter? Hardly so, I think. It means that you are both a seeker as well as a generator of knowledge. It means that you have enriched the world and added on to the vast body of knowledge through your PhD contribution. The world has become a slightly better place from the knowledge that you have contributed through your PhD thesis and publications. The world now knows more on a subject than before you completed your PhD. Your work get referred and cited by other researchers in your field, as they absorb your new knowledge to generate new knowledge of their own.

Your PhD is an end that should be justified by its means. The research methodology, the analysis and the interpretation should justify the conclusion. The new knowledge must have been tested and challenged by your peers and rigorously defended by you. It is an accomplishment unequal by any other feat. Once you have obtained a well-deserved PhD degree, you become your own teacher as self-teaching becomes common practice. You are always curious and tends to read a lot, not just on your subject matter but on everything. You will find doing new things, exploring new frontiers and taking up new challenges more scintillating. In other words, it will change your life and your outlooks forever.

I hope I have inspired some of you to pursue a PhD degree if what you read here is what you really want from a PhD. On the other hand, I hope I have also discouraged others who have a misconception of what a PhD degree entails, so that you will not go down the road of failure. A PhD is not for everyone.

You may share this if you think it would help people you know in deciding whether pursuing a PhD degree is the right path for them to take…

61 Comments

  1. Pradyut Priyadarshini Mishra

    Quite well described

    Reply
  2. Grant Oosterwyk

    Thank you Prof Kelani for such a wonderful post. I am especially on the point of being a father to a 9 month old, a husband and also owning my own business. It is very tough as you can imagine. But like you stated above “you must love or want something bad enough”.

    Greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa.

    Reply
  3. Seema

    PhD means that research which contribute towards making society a better place

    Reply
  4. amit roy

    Thanks for these honest sharing 🙂

    with regards
    amit roy
    IISc Bangalore-12

    Reply
  5. Pramila

    V well defined and so true.. It goes v well with saying where there is a will there is a way.. Thank you 😊

    Reply
  6. Altanzul A.

    The part I liked the most was “The world now knows more on a subject than before you completed your PhD”

    Reply
  7. Mr. Kharusi

    Will you be my supervisor!? Please

    Reply
  8. UIS

    Speaking of passion, it took me 12 years to get my PhD. My advice, which you touched on, PhD is all about your professor. Picking the right professor is 50% of your PhD work. To do that, first make sure first he is mentally and emotionally stable. Second, make sure he has graduated other PhD students before you. In other words, you don’t want to be his guinea pig.

    Reply
    1. Sion

      I disagree with being a PIs first PhD candidate being a problem. If your supervisor is a big Prof. With a gŕeat reputation they may have 10+PhD candidates and have minimal interaction with them. You end up being supervised day to day by another member of the lab only seeing the Prof. Once or twice a month. A first time supervisor will be more focused on your project and work, it may be their only project and they might be working alongside you at the bench.

      Reply
      1. Dr. M. I. O.

        I want to agree with you.

        Reply
  9. Dr. Statterbrain with a good heart

    Thank you for such an inspiring article. I have also been through this journey, and feel so fortunate to see some awesome young minds realize their potential and talents through this benign rollercoaster that is a PhD. Special shout out to Grumps! You have such a bright future my dear! 💛

    Reply
  10. Narasimhacharya

    Exceptionally good thoughts compiled in exceptionally good way. I wish the University Grants Commission(New Delhi) takes note of these observations and design a model paper that should be made compulsory at post-graduate level. It is also necessary to find out if a student is genuinely interested in research or looking at it as a means to pass time or avoid unemployment. It is time to review the entire national examination system.

    Reply
  11. Prof.Dr. Edathil Vijayan

    A well thought out article and a must read for everyone who are crazy for a Ph.D degree!

    Reply
  12. Dr. T S Harsha, Assistant Professor

    Dear Prof Kelani, I fully agree with your views about the Ph. D. degree. As on today, neither student have this knowledge nor a guide. Everybody is getting scholarship form one or other funding agency, and they enjoying it with zero performance. While guide is running behind the number of Ph.d’s he produced to compete for the VC post. This is very serious issue to be considered…..

    Reply
  13. Anon

    It will be better to use gender-neutral pronouns while referring to advisors (like “they”) instead of assuming that the advisors are all men.

    Reply
    1. BM

      Well said, please use gender neutral pronouns

      Reply
  14. Indu Pathania

    Thanks…..

    Reply
  15. kambhampativivek

    thank you for sharing such a beautiful article.. it’s really useful to those who are thinking/applying for joining PhD program.

    Reply
  16. Nicolo Belavendram

    The biggest part of the struggle to achieving a Phd is not so much that students are not “this or that” as much as universities are not “this or that”. In my opinion, the biggest problem is that every PhD student in put on a course with so much “reinventing the wheel”. So students are forever creating the wheel instead of “getting from A to B” in terms of “filling the knowledge gap”. Like as W. E. Deming said “The problem is 90% management”.

    Reply
  17. Alif

    “as they absorb your new knowledge to generate new knowledge of their own” then what? Is society going to benefit? No of course. Then ask yourself; What research is this that remains absorbed by academicians only!!!!

    Reply
    1. Ziaul

      Obviously the society is going to benefit! Life of humans became so good compared to ancient times through the benefits of science.

      Reply
  18. Vuigen Thien

    Thanks Dr, the article was very encouraging for me….

    Reply
  19. Mukharbek

    So true! I really appreciate your thoughts!

    Reply
  20. Ivonne

    Thanks. I’m totally agree about the motivation. Was the best time in my life my predoc time. Friends, mentors and knowledge…. and a new city .. a place I can named my home

    Reply
  21. Sarah

    Sir
    Thank you so much for the article. I am a PhD student and I don’t get along with my supervisor and hence I am facing a lot of problems. Also my university does not provide resources bot even a decent library. I am planning to leave this university. I’ve been here since four months. Am I doing theright thing?

    Reply
  22. Kayathri Kanasan

    I wish to get some guidance. I intend to do PHD in Operation Management. I’m working in HR field close to 10 years. I’m looking at employee productivity and how to relate with current environment and since I’m from manufacturing industry I taught it’s much relevant to me to pick this as my research topic. My motivation to do PHD not because of the title “DR” but I wish to come out something that will be useful for the HR department also the company itself. Your views on this?

    Reply
  23. Suriana Ramli

    Excellent article. I can relate to the message, ideas and opinions based on my own experience.

    Passion is the key.

    Managing yourself, your supervisors, your family and others accordingly and appropriately are critical.

    Being analytical, practical and creative/innovative are the ingredients to succeed.

    Remember being PATIENCE, GENEROUS and HUMBLE will always resolve many issues you have in your journey to get your PhD.

    If you are lonely or lost your way. Talk to GOD. HE WILL ALWAYS LISTEN AND BE THERE FOR YOU.

    All the best to all pursuing your PhD.

    Reply
  24. Nearly a Dr

    From my own experience, persistence is key.
    I learned to love my topic over time, and unfortunately got into a position where I worked in isolation due to my data collection requirements.
    And by persistence, I mean persistence of the student. Your supervisors may not even guide you, but you can still do it even so.

    Reply
  25. Akram

    Nice article

    Reply
  26. Dr.Lyndal M. Bullock

    As one who has mentored numerous doctoral candidates during my career, I strongly agree with your comments. Passion for your field of study is critical. Your willingness to sacrifice to accomplish personal goal is also important. I am proud to say that I mentored 91 students through their PhD programs. Potential PhD students should give careful attention to this post!

    Reply
  27. Suwa Lal Jangu

    A PhD work or Doctoral Research is an intellectual inquiry to re-establish or extent to a particular knowledge in the context of present time, place and idea. As a PhD or DR is a kind of knowledge-building attempt on a particular area that is already established in whatever form in the academic world.

    Reply
  28. DR. Elizabeth Sherly

    Recently I delivered a talk titled “Research Do’s and Dont’s ” . My presentation is exactly the same way you have narrated. I also highlighted ” Patience, Creativity and Innovation” are the prerequisite for a Ph.D student. The role of a supervisor as a Friend and a mentor and how to keep the rapport with the guide, where he/she appreciates when some milestones achieved, sometimes shout when not satisfactorily progressing your work without much reason, at the same time pat you when you really deserve attention.

    Reply
  29. Salawudeen

    Thanks Prof. For this wonderful piece. “Not your level of Intelligence will get you PhD. You must want to do it.” That said it all. Greetings from Nigeria

    Reply
  30. PUJA KUMARI

    Well said Sir and thank you very much for your motivating words. In any field experience makes a person better, and that is you have shared with us. As I am a girl, I can understand what it means when you have to make balanced bridge in between your personal and professional life.

    Reply
  31. Prof.K.B.Reddy

    I got my Ph.D without any Supervisor of Research. It is permitted by some universities, especially in case of faculty.

    Reply
  32. Abhishek Kumar

    PhD is gaining knowledge over a long time frame. As u said u need not be very intelligent to pursue this degree, it’s your perseverance and passion . My ideology is different because in this fast pace of life intellectuals as well as intelligent people are preferred over those who are stagnantly gaining knowledge over a long time frame.

    Reply
  33. Kasinath Viswanathan

    I totally agree with Prof. Hashim on the passion part. Most of the young minds pursue PhD to find something new and create an impact in the field of knowledge. The reality is, the problem a student will be working on is the PI’s and not their own. Great scientific inventions stems when these young ones try on their own ideas. So in my opinion PhD should be considered a training program where the young scientists are trained to identify a query, approach it scientifically and create a hypothesis, design and perform experiments to support the hypothesis and communicate clearly to the scientific community. Spending more than 3-4years is wastage of time. You have next level of training in Post doc for writing grants and exploring one’s own ideas. In many cases people just waste their precious time (age 22-30) of life in attempts to align with individuals (PI’s) interest rather than developing the needed skills.

    Reply
  34. Dr. Krishnakedar

    A lot of h.D. aspirants, especially from engineering disciplines , today feel it as an extension of something like their final year undergraduate or M.Tech. dissertation work, which the case is not.
    The article classically makes it clear that the guide is not going to solve the students problems but can show ways to achieve it , as finding the optimal solution to his problem itself is the process of the Ph.D. programme.

    Reply
  35. Abdikadir Abshir

    Absolutely agree with you, how it’s hard with exhausted limit.
    Thanks a lot

    Reply
  36. Naveen Gupta

    Nice article. It is a must-read for Ph.D. aspirants.

    Reply
  37. Manasa

    It’s really true and one must have passion to complete with above said qualifications

    Reply
  38. Manasa

    It’s really true and one must have passion to complete with above said qualifications. Though I have passion, interest, and so and so I am just trying to get into the path I just want a opportunity just waiting for the right path.

    Reply
  39. Sikandar ALMANI

    Thanks Dr For sharing valuable points.
    These points gave a power to achieve the PhD with full of commitments.

    Good Wishes from France.

    Reply
  40. Sam Robert

    Thanks Professor for the share.
    I really inspired by your valuable suggestions. I think a researcher has to be a societal person so that he could solve some social issues by discussing it, may be with a solution.
    Research in Science subjects can also make impact on the society.
    Making a PhD needs to mean creating a researcher indebted to the society.

    Reply
  41. Roshan Kumar

    Nice article…

    Reply
  42. Madhavi Londhe

    Thank you Sir, you inspired many! In total agreement.
    SRF,BARC.

    Reply
  43. Girish Naik

    This article must be read by every DOCTORATE aspirant

    Reply
  44. Shahzad gul aseer

    Dear Sir: thank you from your preciuse information about phd. But sir if continuesly basis you are provied more information about phd program so its better.

    Reply
  45. Dr. Emmalyn Capuno

    A must read article not only for PhD aspirants… but also for PhD supervisors and/or advisers.

    -Greetings from Khartoum, Sudan

    Reply
  46. Dr. Tapas Kumar Paul

    Thank you sir for your valuable opinions. The doctoral students will be encouraged.

    Reply
  47. Pushpa Raj Acharya

    Thanks for sharing.
    Pushpa Raj Acharya
    Kathmandu, Nepal

    Reply
  48. Abir

    Such inspiring article. Thank you!!

    Reply
  49. Narayan Paudel

    Iam interested for PhD.

    Reply
  50. Dr. Sandeep

    Thank you very much for your extensive khowlge and great experience in the field of higher eduction (Ph.D.)….

    Reply
  51. Juma Stephen Lugga LEMI

    Indeed pursuing PhD. for others is strictly a Prestige while others driving for gaining more knowledge .what can you say of PhD Student above 60 years Old in that strife.

    Reply
  52. Dinesh rajak

    I’m a research scholar…you explained wonderfully the all aspects of phd

    Reply

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