Sep 29 2013

At last, the purpose of a Ph.D. is explained

It’s a pimple.



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  1. 1
    consciousness razor

    I don’t know. I thought they looked more like this.

  2. 2
    Stephen Roberts

    I think that is likely the most brilliant description of learning and knowledge.
    I have used it many times to explain school and education to my kids.

  3. 3
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    I remember one of my history professors, a professor Moriarty, describing PhDs this way:

    “As you travel through college, from bachelors, to masters to PhD, you will know more and more and more about less and less and less.”

    I like the pimple analogy better.

  4. 4

    I always say PHD’s are for making holes for fence posts.

    Education is a funny thing. You start out learning just a little about practically everything, then go on to learn more and more about less and less until you wind up knowing practically everything about nothing at all.

  5. 5

    Correct and also funny, which makes this of extra value. I will of course requisition this for my colleagues, who would be represented as slightly larger pimples.

  6. 6

    Here’s the original article: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

    It’s worth it to scroll down and read the personal story below the link to buy a poster. All proceeds go towards Biology grants.

  7. 7

    My wife often tells me she always thought PhDs were something special, until I got one.

    I’d have to agree.

    I may be an expert in my field, with more than 30 publications in several technical journals and leading a team of 9 bachelors, masters and PhDs in a discipline group at a major aerospace company. But I’m constantly in awe at the intelligence and innovation of some college sophomores we bring on as summer interns, and mechanics and technician with nothing more than a high school education. (And I’m often surprised at the stupidity of some of the highly educated people who work for me.)

    An education is worthless without the right kind of brain to put it in..

  8. 8
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I find it interesting that in the original series of slides, the acquisition of knowledge is bubbling out in the exact orientation necessary to make “knowledge” most resemble Mars’ shield and spear.

    Just an observation.

  9. 9

    Makes it seem somewhat futile. However, if people are reaching out in all different directions and making “pimples” all along – the circle will get bigger. That’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s just that as the circle gets bigger, it takes more effort by more people to push it outward.

  10. 10

    Explains why I feel squeezed from time to time.

  11. 11
    twas brillig (stevem)

    as an undergrad (at MIT) we would always joke:

    BS = Bull Shit(e)
    MS = More Shit(e)
    PhD =
    Piled Higher and Deeper

    But we knew it was “just a joke”

    as an engineer we would post a graph (not available) of “actual incomes” vs “degree”.
    Starting with Bachelor’s, as the lower left point, moving up to the Master’s degree, then plummeting down low for the PhD degree. (maybe lower than the Bachelor’s earnings)

    again, just a joke!

    But then there was our “class song”: (to the tune of Mickey Mouse) M. I. T., // P. H. D.// M. O. N. E. Y!

  12. 12
    twas brillig (stevem)

    All joking aside [re #11], the purpose of PhD’s is exactly to “pimple-ize” our sphere of knowledge, i.e. extend knowledge, add new knowledge to what we already knew. That is why it should be so difficult to acquire a PhD. PhD is a true reward for all the effort one put into achieving it. That is, the PhD is just a certificate of the prize of “new knowledge”, not the reward itself. It is not just “more shite”, “piled higher and deeper“, it is a recognition of the candidate’s contribution to the whole of knowledge.
    /end serious

  13. 13
    george gonzalez

    My respect for PhD’s mostly evaporated in 1973 when I had a guy that brought in a stereo receiver for servicing. He had just bought it and he was very irate that the left channel was dead. He informed us he was a PhD in EE.

    Well I took my 18-yr old unschooled self back to the repair cubicle, hooked up two speakers, and yes, the guy was right, the left channel was dead. Because….. he had the balance control all the way to the right. Still remember the look on his face when I clued him in.

  14. 14
    george gonzalez

    Another PhD: She married a guy partly because, because, she relates, drum roll…. he drove a DeLorean. Marriage only lasted 3 years.

  15. 15

    Yes, george gonzalez@13,14, PhD’s never overlook things or have human foibles. One silly mistake by one or two individuals is cause to dismiss all respect for PhD’s as a class. ::eyeroll:: ::sigh::

    chriscampbell@9, yes, it’s certainly true. I did in lab classes as an undergraduate, what my predecessors got Nobel Prizes. An example of standing on shoulders of giants and all.

    Crip Dyke@8, I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into that. I suspect that there is an underlying psychological preference for directions for such symbology — i.e. that the same aesthetic sense of “rightness” drove both, rather than this set of diagrams being modelled on the Mar symbol. I mean, why 45° and not, oh, 10°? Or -10°? Because it looks “weird”.


    My advisor, when we had completed the “comprehensive exam” (covering all subtopics of physics, in the diagrams this is around the “masters” stage) pointed out that we had achieved the pinnacle of our understanding of physics, and from now on it was downhill. When we objected he laid out for us that this was true because at this point we knew about all the subtopics, but from there on out we would be specializing. And with time the other parts of physics (say statistical mechanics, if one was working on a particle physics thesis) would fade to some degree. Where this diagram lacks a bit is that “stat mech” might be represented by the pink, while particle physics the red, the pink should thin a bit with time.

  16. 16
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    dontpanic #15

    Yes, george gonzalez@13,14, PhD’s never overlook things or have human foibles. One silly mistake by one or two individuals is cause to dismiss all respect for PhD’s as a class. ::eyeroll:: ::sigh::

    In the individual case, it isn’t just a foible but the digging of a hole while making an argument from personal authority is what did him in, in the eyes of george gonzalez. Yeah, everyone does this sort of thing, it’s just when you start making ridiculous assertions because I’ve got a doctorate in EE, when you’re dead stupidly wrong, you rather tend to look bad.

    As to the second bit here, the ting is: Don’t accord people with doctorates (or whatever) an automatic amount of extra respect just because they have a doctorate (or whatever). Which is a thing, you know.

    So maybe we can take george’s broad brush -sounding language and your eyeroll and call it even.

  17. 17
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    I became distinctly less impressed by PhDs after getting one. Mind you, most people don’t realise how narrow (and distant from the commonly known areas of a subject) PhDs really are. For example, people are often surprised that, like most mathematicians (Marcus du Sautoy, for instance, readily admits this) my mental arithmetic is atrocious. Also, to continue using du Sautoy as an example, his area of research (number and group theory) and mine (nonmonotonic logic) are miles apart – though we’d be better able to understand each other’s theses than nonmathematicians, it wouldn’t be easier than for someone with a batchelor’s degree.

    (Disclaimer: whilst I’m using a well known mathematician and myself as examples, another thing people don’t realise is that a PhD is like a martial arts black belt – the beginning, not the end, of expertise, and I haven’t really done anything with my PhD, so MdS could easily kick my mathematical arse!)

  18. 18
    David Marjanović

    I find it interesting that in the original series of slides, the acquisition of knowledge is bubbling out in the exact orientation necessary to make “knowledge” most resemble Mars’ shield and spear.

    I’m sure that’s a coincidence: culturally, the bubble must go “upward” and “forward”.

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