The PhD crucible

Recently interviewing a PhD candidate brought back memories of my own graduate student days. Specifically the time when I wondered what my PhD meant!

Like many Science students during taught masters and undergraduate courses, one saw the big developments in various fields. It was exciting and inspiring to understand key theories in Physics and the big advances that were made. Names like Gauss, Newton, Feynman, Planck, Boltzman and many others became familiar.

Then came the PhD. The beginning sees a fresh faced and eager candidate hoping to contribute something big to Science. Something like the stuff one was taught in class all these years and there is the desire to add one’s name to the list of distinguished scientists.

But thats not how the PhD seems to proceed!
The stuff one is doing seems so narrow and focused, and you wonder where the big picture is. What is the value of this small piece of work? How will this work ever measure up against the really big developments studied in textbooks?

It takes time to realise that the advances we learned about were made over long periods of time and represent the work of many people. Science can often advance through small increments added up, with each scientist a worthy contributor to the bigger picture. Some make bigger contributions and may become famous. That does not detract from the work of others or the sheer joy everyone can derive from research.

Once you settle this in your head and see where you fit in the larger scheme of things (not completely useless!) it helps! Or at least it helped me find peace in my heart, pride for my work and motivation to keep improving.

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