Sunday, February 19, 2012

The PhD: Reflections of a mentor

This weekend, I have been reflecting on the mystical status of the PhD. I don't recall there ever being a moment when one of the people who mentored my own PhD process made an explicitly formulated and crystal clear declaration of what they believed that a PhD to be. Somehow their opinion remained obscured, the PhD appeared an arcane, untouchable concept and it seemed almost as if its true nature needed to be kept secret. Possibly, avoiding such declarations is grounded in a certain age-old mentoring wisdom. Since "It's different for everyone", it might be better not to set up specific expectations for a given PhD candidate. Or possibly, avoiding such declarations is a natural reaction to the rapid rate at which the PhD is changing. In fact, by necessity the concept of "The PhD" must develop radically in order to remain relevant---a topic generating a high volume of discussion, e.g., a special issue in Nature last year devoted to the future of the PhD. In the end, defining "The PhD" seems to open more questions that it answers.

However, I have been the daily mentor for PhD students for a number of years now and I have reached a point where I feel the need to take a snapshot of my perspective on PhD mentoring and set it down in linear form. Actually, it's not really any sort of a secret, so why not put it on my blog? In this post, I aim to describe what for me is the essence of a PhD and what I perceive to be the role of the PhD mentor. My definition of a PhD is:

A PhD is an independent contribution to the knowledge of humanity.

With independent, I mean that the key conceptual content of the PhD is original and arises from the PhD candidate's own insight. Note that the definition does not specify the magnitude of this contribution, or even a particular way in which the contribution must be measured. These aspects vary from field to field.

Given this variation, how is it possible to know that one has a PhD? In my view, someone has a PhD when:

A PhD candidate has earned their PhD when their supervisor declares that they are satisfied and when the candidate has successfully defended their contribution before a committee.

Working in the Netherlands is interesting, because the "completion criteria" are extremely salient. The PhD supervisor is a professor at the university who has something called ius promovendi, or the right to graduate PhD students. The system is set up to keep the the number of people with this right small and exclusive (the rest of us are merely mentors). The PhD defense is a public ceremony: the PhD candidate wears a tuxedo and the committee is dressed in academic regalia. Women usually don't wear the tuxedo---but choose an equally imposing alternative. The defense itself follows a special form, which includes a particular moment at which the doctorate is granted to the candidate. All in all, the tradition and the spectacle are awe inspiring. What is highlighted is the importance of this single moment, when the academic community represented by the committee tests the candidate and convenes in seclusion and makes the determination that s/he has fulfilled the requirements. It's the only moment when we see the candidate in a tuxedo during the whole PhD process. It's worth reflecting on the fact that it is indeed the sine qua non of the PhD---it is the only moment that occurs by necessity.

Beyond these points, the PhD process in a lot of hard work and keen insight on the part of the candidate and a lot of interaction with colleagues and mentors. In the Netherlands, the PhD is "officially" not a PhD at all, but a doctoraat. Both PhD and doctoraat are variations on a "research doctorate". I try to be sensitive to cultural differences between my Anglophone conceptions of the PhD and what is common here---but mostly these have turned out to be superficial (e.g., the mandatory tuxedos).

If the PhD candidate is the one doing the thinking and the heavy scientific lifting, what, one wonders, is exactly the role of the mentor? This role is, of course, going to vary widely from person to person, but it's worth trying to capture those aspects that remain invariant. Here is a list of the points that, in my mind, a mentor is responsible for:
  1. Making sure that the candidate has the skills and tools necessary to be a successful researcher. The candidate should be completely comfortable with carrying out the steps of the scientific method. Usually, people are well versed in the scientific method when they start their PhDs. What often needs a bit of help is recognizing the worthwhile examples and not so worthwhile examples of the scientific method. One learns this discrimination through practice and (again) a lot of thinking about it.
  2. Making sure the candidate has a viable topic. A PhD topic will stays with someone for the rest of their life. The mentor needs to the very best of their ability to guide the PhD candidate into growth areas and away from research dead-ends.
  3. Reminding the candidate to converge. It's only one little word in the definition above, but it is important to note that a PhD is an independent contribution and not many independent contributions. Good PhD students will generate ideas during their PhD, which will feed the rest of their scientific careers. The mentor should offer gentle reminders that the PhD thesis is finite in length and does not need to address every vista that arises in the course of investigation.
  4. Guiding the PhD candidate to acculturating into the research community. The process involves discussing the particular topics and methodologies used by a particular community (in our case, these communities are defined by specific conferences and journals) and also facilitating introductions of the candidate to other members of the community. The mentor should keep in mind that acculturation is bi-directional, i.e., that PhD candidates are also destined to change the communities that they join.
  5. Giving the PhD candidate space to fail. A certain number of failure experiences during the PhD-process ensures that we are actually testing the boundaries of the scientific field and pushing into uncharted territory. The space should be so large and generous, so that there is a non-vanishing possibility that the PhD candidate fails at the entire PhD. The number of "total failure" cases should be kept minimal and mentors should be vigilant to spot high risk cases early on in the process. However, it is critical to maintain room for failure in order to encourage the risk taking necessary to ensure that PhD research produces progress in the state of the art.
  6. Supporting the PhD student in understanding where they would like to go with their career after the PhD and how to get there. This point is difficult due to the unpredictable nature of the economy and, well, of the future in general. However, discussion of "life beyond defense" is helpful to achieving convergence (mentioned under point 3) and also to avoiding a letdown after defense, which has been likened to postpartum depression.
Equally important perhaps, is what the mentor doesn't do:

The mentor does not formulate the statement of the candidate's "independent contribution" for the candidate. The candidate comes up with the statement of the independent contribution. The mentor helps to formulate the research questions addressed by the candidate in the natural course of 1.-5. above. However, there is a moment in time when the candidate articulates the key contribution and the mentor says, "Hey, yeah, that's it."

There may be an actual audible click heard at this moment---colleagues like to report having actually heard it. On the other hand, some PhD candidates come up with a new formulation of their independent contribution every week and the process involves more of a sorting and winnowing rather than of a flash of enlightenment. All the same, the independent contribution is originated and owned by the candidate.

At first, making an independent contribution might sound a bit scarey to PhD candidates, since it's actually impossible to know in advance if of oneself if one will make a contribution before one actually knows what the contribution is. The two must necessarily occur in exactly the same moment: there are no guarantees.

However, when I dig a little deeper I find that most people that come to me for mentoring are there because they have a strong intuition about themselves that they have this contribution to make, that it's somewhere there inside of them and that they are looking for a way to realize it.

They also more or less consciously know that the formulation of the contribution is the fun part. In the end, a scientist or an engineer needs a PhD the way a Formula 1 racer needs a driver's license. It's a necessary part of what we do, but it's far, far away from being the actual essence of the scientific endeavor.

What I'd really would like the PhD students I mentor to understand is this: The way it works is that you wake up one morning and realize that in your own mind you are already through it, and have accomplished it with poise and flare. You see that really all of those people who you thought were being so critical are just standing there helping you along and itching to see you show your stuff on international race tracks around the world. There's a huge party of course, but then you are on to other things and don't really think about having passed your driver's test.

But it's the Netherlands, and you don't need a car. So let me spend a few words on bicycles. The PhD process is also a bit like riding a bicycle: when you first learn to balance yourself, you sort of have the feeling that it will fall over at any minute. But very quickly you are riding ahead and it just works and you are fully focused on where you are going and don't think about falling. And then you arrive and you yourself know that you have got there.

The interesting point about using the bicycle comparison is this: The whole nature of what a bicycle is would be altered if someone invented one you could ride and be 100% guaranteed never to fall. I certainly don't think any of the people I know here in the Netherlands would ride a bike like that. Riding a bike is about getting where you need to be.

So the PhD candidate is riding a bicycle towards a goal and the contribution of the mentor is...

...well, the candidate shouldn't even really be noticing that the mentor is making a contribution. Rather, the candidate should be wondering why the mentor doesn't have time to read all the related work papers that s/he is leaving on their desk and why the mentor sort of nods dumbly when s/he has bring them up to speed by explaining to them exactly why these papers contribute to the formulation of the research question or provide support for the experimental methods or results for the particular building block of the theses currently being worked on. Aaaargh! Points 1.-6. above, great, yeah, but what is the mentor actually doing?

Right. That right there is the PhD. In the end, there will be a certain healthy degree of ambiguity of whether the candidates achievement occurred because of the mentor or despite the mentor.

OK. That last part had a definitely mystical ring to it. And the fact that I myself have arrived as such a statement, makes it clearer to me why none of my own mentors ever explicitly formulated and crystal clear declaration of what a PhD is. They probably did, but I didn't recognize at the time that an essential part of the clarity lies in its very ambiguity.

I never pushed any of them either on this point---never asked for a definition. So then am I pushing myself now?

Actually, I think that in part it has to do with the tuxedos. In the Netherlands, that "Hey, yeah, that's it." moment on the part of the mentor is accompanied by a flash of this mental image of the candidate standing at the podium wearing a tuxedo and performing fabulously during the defense. Since my scientific training comes from outside of the Netherlands, my own natural inclination if you ask me to support someone towards wearing a tuxedo is teaching them how to waltz---which is with a large probability irrelevant. The irrelevance of my personal associations with tuxedos to "The PhD" triggered me to start thinking about what is relevant and to set down my perspective in linear form---quite probably, in the end, opening more questions than I have answered.