WHAT A PhD IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT

By Prof. kelani

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…
(From Prof Kelani’s experience)

17 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
  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
  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

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