Why do a ph.D

I was recently reading a New York Times bestseller titled, "The Cure", by Geeta Anand. This is based on the true story of John Crowley, who is the founder of a famous bio-tech company called Novozyme. In one of the incidents described in the book, John Crowley goes with one of his colleagues to present their technical results to few of their main investors. In the middle of the presentation, one of the investors wanted to know about the qualification of one of John Crowley's colleagues, who had generated all the data. This gentleman humbly said that he had a Bachelor's in microbiology. The investor got very furious and stormed out of the room.  The author made the following comment, "In the world of science and medicine, having an undergraduate degree in microbiology was considered barely better than  kindergarten".

This is probably a slightly pathological example, and a very bold statement too. I would advise my readers to not get offended with this statement. However, let us try to appreciate this statement in spirit, and try to find out more behind the attitude of the angry investor.

Let me now give another example. Let us suppose, that a group of individuals are trying to design a smart computer game. This game needs to be able to process a large amount of data, decisions, and complex graphical scenes in real time. The developers will most likely refer to basic textbooks most of the time. However, once in a while they will come across a problem, which is far too complex to be addressed in mass market textbooks. A few such issues can be: the game is consuming a lot of power on a mobile phone, the images are not rendering in time, it is taking too long to calculate the computer's strategy. Secondly, textbooks are available to competitors also. Where is the differentiation?

To create the differentiation, and to make money in the market, the developers need to propose solutions that are novel, and are technically superior to those proposed by others. Along with spending a lot of time thinking, they would need to refer to the vast trove of research papers that are produced by the scientific community. Most of the time, they would get quick answers to some of their most difficult problems in research papers. Occasionally, they would face a problem, which does not have a ready made solution. Subsequently, they would need to take a deep look at state of the art research papers, liaise with other researchers, and find a solution.

This is precisely the way state of the art R&D works. It can be drug discovery for Novozyme, or  game development for our hypothetical company, the process is almost the same. In all cases, we need people whose frontiers of knowledge extend far beyond textbooks. They should be able to read, understand, and communicate in the language of research papers.  Lastly, if required, they should also be able to contribute to the world of research. A Ph.D can do all of these tasks.

Skeptics might say that great men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn't have a Ph.D. Secondly, all the top technologists in top companies don't have a Ph.D. Let me ask a counter-question, "Is it necessary to have a driving license to know how to drive?". The answer is definitely "no". Secondly, a lot of people with licenses are not very good drivers. However, if anybody needs to hire a driver, he would still want to hire a driver with a valid license. Leaving aside legal requirements, a license increases the credibility of the driver. It means that he has at least read the documents that are required to get a license, and he has driven the car to the satisfaction of the license inspector. The same is the case with a Ph.D.  A Ph.D is a license to do R&D.

The investor in the case of John Crowley wanted to either see this license, or he wanted to see a phenomenal result. Since he didn't see the latter, he at the least wanted to see the former. The take home point from this example is that a Ph.D increases a person's credibility, acceptability, knowledge, abilities, and standing, in the world of advanced R&D. It does not fundamentally alter his abilities. A license to drive, or to practice medicine, or law, doesn't do either, but people still go after them.

The training imparted in a Ph.D, and the subsequent research activities, address the probability of producing a successful R&D engineer by measurably increasing it. This is just the professional part. Let us now look at the personal part.

There are some people, who have an irrepressible quench for doing novel and creative things. They want to achieve something significant. They want to work at the frontiers of knowledge, and extend the state of the art. Sadly, jobs in MNC/IT companies or finance companies will not be able to help them achieve this goal.  Such kind of people desperately need two things: freedom and the ability to express themselves. These luxuries of life are unfortunately not available in any setup other than academia.

Let us first look a the freedom part. A job in a typical company is a 9 to 5 job. Almost all the time is spent in finishing regular line items that are decided by the management. It is often bureaucratically very difficult to propose new ideas or effect changes. Sadly, a lot of very bright students get put off by such kind of a process oriented job. They feel that they are destined for bigger and better things. Maybe a student feels that he should study the nature of consciousness rather than design a testing module for a web app. Maybe somebody has an idea to design the next state of the art mobile phone, or computer, or an innovative device to help blind children appreciate the magic of poetry. Where are the time and resources to implement all of this, in a conventional job? Such kind of activities require a research setup.

Now, let us look at the self expression part. I was recently talking to one of my friends in Bangalore. He mentioned that some good work is happening in company, X. I instantly asked him about the people involved. He didn't have an idea. Here is the irony - a brilliant employee is doing some good work, the credit goes to company, X. The employee surely has a name, and deserves his place under the sun. It is just that we don't know who he is, and he has no way of letting the world know about his achievements. Fortunately, an academic or research setup solves this problem. If a Ph.D student proposes a solution to a problem, then everybody gets to know the name and details of the student. A Ph.D student is a brand by himself, and he gets to blow his on trumpet. This is a very powerful expression of individuality.

We thus observe that a Ph.D is more than a degree. It allows a student to express himself, achieve his creative potential, do something beyond the ordinary, and end up feeling really good about it. If a student does good work, then he quickly gets international recognition, and gets to travel all over the world.

In this article, I have mostly tried to talk about the personal and philosophical aspects of a Ph.D. In related posts, I talk about the job opportunities, career options, and long term prospects of the Ph.D. They are all available here.