Why you should get a PhD and the importance of being “productively stupid”



I feel privileged to be in a Ph.D program, with a world-renowned adviser and a fairly new department( which means I have a lot of flexibility to study and explore my area of interest) in a way that would be impossible in a more established set-up.  The past six months that I have been in my program have been some of the most intense and intellectually charged months of my life. This is just one of the perks of being in a Ph.D program. While there are as many negatives to committing years of one’s life  to pursue a doctoral degree, I will make the case for earning one, here.  In essence, a Ph.D degree helps you to  be “productively stupid,” as Martin Schwarz has pointed out.

Productive stupidity is feeling stupid, while looking for the right answer(s), to the questions before us, and knowing that the truth is out there ( or within us) and needs to be un-veiled.

For starters, the Ph.D degree is structured to make you look stupid. Just reading brilliant works by remarkably smart people can be intimidating, and make you feel that you are perhaps not going to produce such work, ever.  In this interesting essay, Martin A.Schwartz points out the importance of feeling stupid in scientific research. In it, he talks about how it is crucial to realize  that one is framing questions, which have perhaps never been asked and why it is crucial to work diligently to answer them: for discovering a new reality or dimension of truth. He says:”My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.” This comment is telling, in that most of us Ph.D students don’t take the project before us in context of the wider contribution it can make to literature, and our understanding of the world.

Those of us who realize the enormity of this task end up in two opposing camps: They ( like Schwartz, in the beginning) feel incredibly stupid or on the other extreme, end up becoming extremely arrogant. The know-it-all types. I am sure you have come across a few of those folks, yourself.

What then, is the point? One may be tempted to ask. What is the point of focusing all one’s time, energy (and often) money to focus on a narrow field of work. How does it help one’s career and growth?

For those who believe in “developing themselves,” and living the “good life,” the argument is easy: You study and get more education to become a Mensch, a refined man( or woman) who is an asset to one’s society. Earning a Ph.D is often a long process, requiring endless hours of reading, writing, discussing, and often re-thinking and questioning one’s assumptions about basic things in one’s field ( and life).

For those who approach the enterprise of education from a purely utilitarian perspective ( how will a Ph.D equip me to get a better job), the answer is also likely to be a positive one. Depending on one’s field, a Ph.D can open( at times close) a few doors.  Much of scientific( both pure science and social science) research depends on higher education. It has been demonstrated beyond doubt that

A National Science Foundation research points that a Ph.D has a lesser likelihood of being unemployed in a tough market. This study has some interesting statistics.  The reason that top scientists and researchers are harder to fire is because, they are sitting on more knowledge. As the author of this article points out:” During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from oneErlenmeyer flask to another.” This seems common-sense to anyone who has an idea of how scientific establishments work. Knowledge seldom is totally useless.

While the American Ph.D is modeled after the German model of learning and scholarship, it is still relevant. It also seems to be adapting to the new challenges thrown before it: one of technology, changing modes of knowledge production and dissemination. As this article points out, there is a growing shift in academia to approach the dissertation as a piece of work that shows scholar ability and the format of presenting it is changing. It is no longer confined to just traditional dissertations. In fact, one of my committee members advised me to write a book, a viable alternative to producing a dry, 250 plus page jargon-filled dissertation, which would not be read by more than five people at the most.  Here is an example of a Ph.D student, who has produced a website which documents her work as a Prison-historian.  Her work is more accessible, readable and has an activist bent of mind. Very useful to non-academics, as well.

For all those skeptics, who don’t think a Ph.D is helpful, one needs to only take a cursory look at all objects, artifacts and ideas around oneself – most definitely all of them have had some researcher paying close attention to their innovation, development and refinement.

So, the question is not whether a Ph.D is relevant and useful; but rather whether it is catching up (in its methodologies) and what is expected in terms of output with what is needed in the ‘real world’?

The answer is a mixed one, but considering how some of the trial-blazing universities are responding, there is hope. Hope that the doctoral degree will keep pace with the changing world and not become a relic of the past.

2 thoughts on “Why you should get a PhD and the importance of being “productively stupid””

  1. I think that the time it takes to become proficient in a new policy field is vastly under-estimated. Mastering the language and dialogue of the new field is difficult enough, and it can take days/weeks just to get the lay of the land. After figuring out the broad issues and how they interact with one another though, that’s when the real learning starts. Diving into an issue and realizing the real world implications often means realizing just how poorly read you actually are as your problems relate to the ‘real’ world. It is a chasm that can often only be bridged by asking the right questions, and to ask the right questions takes research in and of itself. I think that this is what the PhD lends itself to, and diving in head first into a problem without looking when you have the chance helps too. 🙂

    Just a thought.


  2. Thanks for sharing the essay by Martin A. Schwarz, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. You are right, it is incredibly intimidating to think about how I could ever contribute to scientific knowledge in a meaningful way. Especially when it often feels like I spend entire days in a state of bewilderment (and slight panic) as I try to make sense of my research questions. Even though I know I am not supposed to have the answers yet, otherwise there would be no point to the research, Schwarz’s article is very comforting. I really am supposed to feel this way! I even might print out his concluding sentence to put up in my office as gentle reminder about productive stupidity. “The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries”.


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