PhD as beginning rather than end

I don’t know if I will ever have a PhD. The future is never certain. But I’m much more hopeful, and much more committed, now than I was even a couple years ago.

My mindset on what a PhD is has shifted substantially. Up until this past year, I’ve always thought of the PhD as the narrow point at the end of the educational funnel. You start out with the broadness of grade school, and become more narrow and focused while moving through undergraduate and master’s studies, and finally with PhD you are restricted to one narrow question which you have to devote years of your life to.

That framing is not appealing to me. There is so much to learn, so much to study, so much to receive from those who have been scrutinizing important questions ahead of us. I feel claustrophobic thinking of focusing on one thing relentlessly. Maybe one day I could make the sacrifice of not studying anything else, but not yet. For now there’s still so much that I don’t know!

Obviously that depiction isn’t entirely false. But it misses something very important.

My entire perspective changed when I began to think of a PhD as the first step into the life of scholarship. After completing a PhD, you are allowed, even encouraged, to research any question that is worthwhile and within your abilities. After a PhD, strenuous and wide-ranging reading and writing is an advantage, not a distraction. It’s the job description! A PhD is just the few years it takes to prove that access to the scholarly community and job market is something you should be able to handle responsibly.

If a PhD were the lens that focused a person into a laser that would never deviate from a very small circle, then I would feel great reluctance to consider it.

If it is a door, though, opening into a world full of the smartest conversations, then I find myself much more interested.

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