Earlier today, Heather Froehlich shared what’s at this point become a canonical illustration among Ph.D. students: “The Illustrated guide to a Ph.D.” The illustrator, Matt Might, describes the sum of human knowledge as a circle. As a child, you sit at the center of the circle, looking out in all directions.
A master’s degree further deepens your focus, extending you toward an edge, and the process of pursuing a Ph.D., with all the requisite reading, brings you to a tiny portion of the boundary of human knowledge.
You push and push at the boundary until one day you finally poke through, pushing that tiny portion of the circle of knowledge just a wee bit further than it was. That act of pushing through is a Ph.D.
It’s an uplifting way of looking at the Ph.D. process, inspiring that dual feeling of insignificance and importance that staring at the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field tends to bring about. It also exemplifies, in my mind, one of the broken aspects of the modern Ph.D. But while we’re on the subject of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, let me digress momentarily about stars.
Quite a while before you or I were born, Great Thinkers with Big Beards (I hear even the Great Women had them back then) also suggested we sat at the center of a giant circle, looking outwards. The entire universe, or in those days, the cosmos (Greek: κόσμος, “order”), was a series of perfect layered spheres, with us in the middle, and the stars embedded in the very top. The stars were either gems fixed to the last sphere, or they were little holes poked through it that let the light from heaven shine through.
As I see it, if we connect the celestial spheres theory to “The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.”, we’d arrive at the inescapable conclusion that every star in the sky is another dissertation, another hole poked letting the light of heaven shine through. And yeah, it takes a very prescriptive view of the knowledge and the universe that either you or I can argue with, but for this post we can let it slide because it’s beautiful, isn’t it? If you’re a Ph.D. student, don’t you want to be able to do this?
The problem is I don’t actually want to do this, and I imagine a lot of other people don’t want to do this, because there are already so many goddamn stars. Stars are nice. They’re pretty, how they twinkle up there in space, trillions of miles away from one another. That’s how being a Ph.D. student feels sometimes, too: there’s your research, my research, and a gap between us that can reach from Alpha Centauri and back again. Really, just astronomically far away.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Right now a Ph.D. is about finding or doing something that’s new, in a really deep and narrow way. It’s about pricking the fabric of the spheres to make a new star. In the end, you’ll know more about less than anyone else in the world. But there’s something deeply unsettling about students being trained to ignore the forest for the trees. In an increasingly connected world, the universe of knowledge about it seems to be ever-fracturing. Very few are being trained to stand back a bit and try to find patterns in the stars. To draw constellations.
I should know. I’ve been trying to write a dissertation on something huge, and the advice I’ve gotten from almost every professor I’ve encountered is that I’ve got to scale it down. Focus more. I can’t come up with something new about everything, so I’ve got to do it about one thing, and do it well. And that’s good advice, I know! If a lot of people weren’t doing that a lot of the time, we’d all just be running around in circles and not doing cool things like going to the moon or watching animated pictures of cats on the internet.
But we also need to stand back and take stock, to connect things, and right now there are institutional barriers in place making that really difficult. My advisor, who stands back and connects things for a living (like the map of science below), gives me the same prudent advice as everyone else: focus more. It’s practical advice. For all that universities celebrate interdisciplinarity, in the end you still need to get hired by a department, and if you don’t fit neatly into their disciplinary niche, you’re not likely to make it.
My request is simple. If you’re responsible for hiring researchers, or promoting them, or in charge of a department or (!) a university, make it easier to be interdisciplinary. Continue hiring people who make new stars, but also welcome the sort of people who want to connect them. There certainly are a lot of stars out there, and it’s getting harder and harder to see what they have in common, and to connect them to what we do every day. New things are great, but connecting old things in new ways is also great. Sometimes we need to think wider, not deeper.