The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

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Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is.

It's hard to describe it in words.

So, I use pictures.

Read below for the illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

Update: Print version, slides and translations, CC licensing terms.

Update: I wrote a follow-up to this 5 years later -- HOWTO: Get tenure.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:

A master's degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you're at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

There's a bit more below, but I also wrote a follow-up 5 years after the illustrated guide which may be of interest -- HOWTO: Get tenure.

Related posts

If you like these posts, then I recommend the book A PhD Is Not Enough:

Get it in print; fund students; save lives

By request, a print version of The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. is on sale.

Click here to preview or buy it.

Any and all proceeds will fund graduate students whose work may impact the discovery, diagnosis or treatment of genetic disorders.

Any and all proceeds will fund graduate students (and postdocs) doing work in biology that may impact treatment of diseases of cellular metabolism.

Update: If you're interested in being that postdoc, get in touch with me!

It is available at $6.50 thanks to Hewlett-Packard's high-quality on-demand publishing service, MagCloud.

It's sixteen pages, saddle-stitch bound and in full color.

It's a good gift for new students, the recently defended and relatives thereof.

Why biology?

If you zoom in on the boundary of human knowledge in the direction of genetics, there's something just outside humanity's reach:

My wife and I chose to start funding these graduate students after we learned that our son has a rare, fatal genetic disorder.

It may be too late for my son, but it's not too late for other children.

Even one child suffering is one child too many.

The only way to end this kind of suffering is science.

And, the best way to do science is through graduate students.

Update: When I first wrote this post, my son's specific disorder was unknown. Thanks to a scientific advance made in genetic diagnostics--specifically exome sequencing--we were able to isolate the mutations in my son's genome and determine that he is the very first documented case of a new disease: N-glycanase deficiency.

One small dent in the circle of knowledge; one giant leap for my son.

You can read the full story in a new post: Hunting down my son's killer.

License: Creative Commons

I receive numerous requests to reproduce this work, and I'm happy to grant them all, subject to three small conditions:

  1. Please attribute the original work to me (Matt Might) and link back to this page in your reproduction:
    as The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.
  2. When you attribute, please also link my name, Matt Might, to:
  3. And, don't forget the "Keep pushing," at the bottom!

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

That means you can share, copy, modify and reproduce this work as long as you attribute the original work to me and link back to it as outlined above.

However, you may not sell this work, or use it for commercial purposes. You may only distribute it free of charge. If you're not sure whether your use is a "commercial purpose," please send me an email.

If possible, please host the images on your own server instead of linking back to mine.

If you use it in a presentation, I'd love to hear feedback.

Here's an example attribution that satisfies the legal requirements:

Matt Might, a professor in Computer Science at the University of Utah, created The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. to explain what a Ph.D. is to new and aspiring graduate students. [Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.]

If it helps, here's the corresponding HTML, which you can modify to suit your site's needs:

<a href="">Matt Might</a>, a professor in
<a href="">Computer Science</a>
at the <a href="">University of Utah</a>, created 
<a href="">The
Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.</a> to explain what a Ph.D. is to new and
aspiring graduate students. 

[Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with 
<a href="">
special terms under the Creative Commons license</a>.]

And, of course, thank you for sharing!


Please let me know if you translate this post into another language.