The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

Matthew Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah, writes: “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.” Here it goes. Matt’s Illustrated Guide:

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.

You can find Matt’s Illustrated Guide hosted on his web site. This guide/reality check is published under a Creative Commons License. You can also buy a print version for $6.50. (The money goes to charity.) Matt offers more insights for Ph.D. students here.

by | Permalink | Comments (41) |

Comments (41)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • David says:

    What a great visual!

  • Sele says:

    Great! Although it makes me both excited and sad at the same time… thinking that I will never learn all about that huge circle of knowledge.

  • Chloé says:

    Love it

    “So, don’t forget the bigger picture” it’s always a good thing to keep in mind!


  • Fantastic article… Love it!!!!
    We even re-posted it on our site… thanks!

  • Matt Gleason says:

    Nice! I like that! Just goes to show how committed and potentious you have to be to become a doctor!!!

  • Pat Anderson says:

    In some ways, so sad. I recall my grad student profs. telling me that, in the 15th century, it was possible for an educated man (there really weren’t a lot of educated women) to read everything that had been published (and was still extant). In 1981, I was told, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the articles published about Hamlet. These days, with the explosion of the internet, it seems easier and easier to have a thin veneer of knowledge (the black ring) yet true depth in *many* areas? The possibility of being a renaissance person, incorporating knowledge from many different areas to see new fields or shed a new understanding, fades into the past.

  • chilangado says:

    “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost with information?” T. S. Eliot

  • Hamid says:

    I’m a BS student trying to exceed the boundary sooner than taking a PhD. :)

  • Dan Brouwer says:

    As someone with a PhD, I want to note that many of the people in the smallest circle – or people without formal education at all – have far more practical knowledge of the outer edges of this sphere (and much knowledge of things we can’t know, because practice grants a totally different perspective than study) than those of us with an academic environment ever can.

  • heffaklump says:

    And then there’s people who never try to push the boundary of the inner blue area, but just repost the work of others in a way that is worse than the original version.
    You forgot to copy the very first line:

    “Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge”

    Not totally unimportant to the illustrated story.

  • Evan Plaice says:

    I have always wondered how current higher education systems expect students to come up with original works after spending their whole lives consuming and regurgitating other’s ideas.

    How hard is it to recognize that the current GPA system rewards those who are better at following and perpetuating the works of others and not creating their own. Why does a PHD thesis require endless references to produce a(n) (supposedly) original work?

    I think the current higher education system works not to advance the sum of human knowledge but to further validate and promote itself at the expense of the economy and its students futures.

    For example. Look at computer science (programming). The curriculum has an excess emphasis on math and very little emphasis on practical application and practice. Therefore, most CS majors leave college completely capable of micro-optimizing algorithms and solving useless math riddles but are completely incapable of creating even the simplest application on demand.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they’re not.”

    Why, in recent history, has it become acceptable for theory to be considered a viable replacement for hands on practice? Because it’s cheaper? How is that supposed to reflect on the quality of the workers in our modern economies?

  • Dan Colman says:


    Matt invites people on his website to reproduce the image. I checked in with him beforehand, just to make sure, and he happily signed off. Since then, at least 20,000 people have seen the image and he gets attribution front and center. Such a crime in that? In the meantime, if you don’t see enough personal effort going into the rest of the site, then you’re free to go elsewhere. Less can be more.


  • joe says:

    Proof that doing a PhD turns you into a prick

  • So is it worth it for a PhD? I think yes, every bit of education counts.

  • JCF says:

    “Proof that doing a PhD turns you into a prick”


    [Whereas true polymath saints like myself get an Ed.D ;-/]

  • GERALDO says:

    Doing PhD is to see the humanity as one. One’s problem is not his alone. its humanity’s.

  • Pablo says:

    Do not forget the bigger picture? please how can you measure or represents all the human knoledge!? on internet all people from all places can see it, and on the other hand, in other countries (e.g. Argentina) there isn’t a “bachelor degree”, a Licentiate or Magister degree are equivalent, in terms of formal years education, to a Master or PhD graduate degree in USA. Moreover there are PhD’s thesis that do nos contribute in nothing to human knowledge. greets

  • JCF says . . . | October 5, 2010 / 10:52 pm
    “Proof that doing a PhD turns you into a prick” …

    Ahh, JCF, by your reasoning Ph.D.’s can prick the bubbles of all you non cognoscenti!!!

    Jean Oscar Pierre Le Blanc
    AQC, U.S. Navy, retired (and Ph.D./ABD)

  • Veronica Golini says:

    Images always work better than words! BEAUTIFUL!

  • Madhu says:

    What a wonderful visual-this is humbling

  • Mike Barnett says:

    Very nice! I’ve always remembered what my grad advisor said: “For a bachelor’s degree, they hold out a hoop and tell you to jump through it. For a master’s degree, they hold out the hoop and light it on fire. For a PhD, they say ‘Find the hoop’.”

  • Newman says:

    I’ve always wanted one of those, but I can’t seem to get it quite right in photoshop.

  • pankaj says:

    It’s very true…but….
    Circle of knowledge can filled completely and expanded to infinity by the science of spirituality. This is the ‘Knowledge of highest order’ for human beings.

  • Jen PhD says:

    I actually think the ‘bigger picture’ should make the dent look even smaller!

  • rotozeev says:

    Very funny! But this picture show only one phd, and in real word there are many phd’s which makes big circle more big.

  • Airat Ha says:

    smb wrote:
    “””When working on a PhD, you must focus on a topic so narrow that you can understand it completely. 
    It will seem at first that you’re working on the proverbial needle, a tiny fragment of the world, a minute crystal,  
    beautiful but in the scheme of things, microscopic. 
    Work with it. And the more you work with it, the more you penetrate it, the more you will come to see that your work, your subject, encompasses the world.  
    In time, you will come to see the world in your grain of sand.  “””To see a world in a grain of sand Or a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)  

  • jacob wapinski says:

    accepting this article in blind faith does prove that we have lost something with specialization. since when is a model correct, solely because it is beautiful and coherent, with all its circles and bright colors? is this the demostration that studying for a PhD is a worthless pursuit that misses de whole picture? i disagree.

  • louis says:

    knowlege puff’s up Love build’s up. So if you base your life on knowelege only you will miss the true lesson life has for you…God Loves you…

  • Blackmadame says:

    “I just know that i know nothing”

  • innovator4life says:

    You don’t have to give a person a reason to be prejudiced. They’ll find one.

  • Very Ignorant Person (VIP) says:

    The illustrated guide is simply beautiful and beautifully simple. Great job Matt !

    It is really humbling to “see” and understand the fact that human knowledge has its limits. There are many existing problems which lie beyond the circle that need to be solved (scientific and non-scientific)or at least understood. We need to “keep pushing” at it.

    Stop fighting each other. If you do not have any good to say to each other, do not say anything. I am very proud to say that I am a Very Ignorant Person and do not have any knowledge. Know thy self….

  • a pharmacist says:

    Careful buddy, if you kiss your own ass any harder your entire head might be lost to the darkest corner of the human body.

  • Robin Ranjan Singh says:

    Just Beautiful. May the circumference of the circle keeps increasing with time.It will be good for mankind and the peoples responsible for the increased circumference must be proud of themselves.

  • Richard says:

    The other important part of getting a PhD is, along with the others, to keep that circle fully inflated through scholarship and teaching. Imparting knowledge to the next generation is vital to maintaining AND expanding the circle.

  • JLDavid says:

    The next time I’m lost in the jungle (and I’ve been to the jungle)remind me to bring along any native, even a 10-year old native kid as a guide, instead of a PhD. My odds of survival are much greater with the 10-year old. As for standarized tests, the same goes. Any native from the jungle may “flunk” the test, and almost any city person will likely “flunk” the survival test in the jungle. PhD’s involve structured systems such as writing, grading, ass-kissing, being a geek, all-nighters, etc, which have nothing to do with real life. You don’t get a PhD in survival. I know many highly successful un-PhD’s and who didn’t go to college that employ several PhD’s. A PhD is simply a white-man’s score card (I’m a white man btw) to make themselves feel better (and higher) than their fellow man…’nough said.

    • LiRuiKe says:

      How many PhD’s do you now employ? If none, maybe you’re just wandering jungles, looking for roots and berries to eat, like some uneducated native.

  • bigalosu says:

    Some of the responses on here are amazingly sad.
    The purpose of this was not to say people with degrees are smarter or better than people without one. It was to show that one person can add original ideas and knowledge to the immense pool of knowledge out there. That as you build upon a foundation of knowledge, you can eventually reach an area where others cannot or have not reached. This can be said for people without PhDs who pursue knowledge/experience their own way, but this website focuses on education! The setting of something is very important to its relevance, or at least that’s what I learned in college…

  • Dolores V. Sisco says:

    Oh, now you tell me. Lol

  • Nicole says:

    oh my. This is hysterical. Love it, thank you!

Leave a Reply