The Illustrated Guide to a PhD: 12 Simple Pictures That Will Put the Daunting Degree into Perspective

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." In his Illustrated Guide to the PhD, Professor Might creates a visual narrative that puts the daunting degree into perspective. Anyone who has already pursued a Ph.D. will see the wisdom in it. (Or at least I did.) And young, aspiring academics would be wise to pay it heed.

You can see a condensed version of the the illustrated guide above. Or follow it in a larger format below.

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.

This guide first appeared on our site in 2012. But, with all of the wisdom it packs into a small space, it seemed worth bringing back.

How Finland Created One of the Best Educational Systems in the World (by Doing the Opposite of U.S.)

Every conversation about education in the U.S. takes place in a minefield. Unless you’re a billionaire who bought the job of Secretary of Education, you’d better be prepared to answer questions about racial and economic equity, disability issues, protections for LGBTQ students, teacher pay and unions, religious charter schools, and many other pressing concerns. These issues are not mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct from questions of curriculum, testing, or achievement. The terrain is littered with possible explosive conflicts between educators, parents, administrators, legislators, activists, and profiteers.

The needs of the most deeply invested stakeholders, as they say, the students themselves, seem to get far too little consideration. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actually wanted to improve the educational experiences and academic outcomes for our children---all of them? Where might we look for a model? Many people have looked to Finland, at least since 2010, when the documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted struggling U.S. public schools with highly successful Finnish equivalents.


The film, a positive spin on the charter school movement, received significant backlash for its cherry-picked examples and blaming of teachers’ unions for America’s failing schools. By contrast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an American Fulbright Scholar who studies them, as “the ‘ultimate charter school network'" (a phrase, we'll see, that means little in the Finnish context.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teachers are not strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations, but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as teams of trusted professionals.”

Last year, Michael Moore featured many of Finland’s innovative educational experiments in his humorous, hopeful travelogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, who explains to him why Finnish children do not have homework; hear also from a group of high school students, high school principal Pasi Majassari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many others. Shorter school hours—the “shortest school days and shortest school years in the entire Western world”---leave plenty of time for leisure and recreation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, conduct experiments, sing, and generally enjoy themselves.

“There are no mandated standardized tests,” writes LynNell Hancock at Smithsonian, “apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school... there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish students have, in the past several years, consistently ranked in the top ten among millions of students worldwide in science, reading, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hearing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that America should get rid of standardized tests,” should stop teaching to those tests, stop designing entire curricula around multiple-choice tests. Hancock describes the results of the Finnish system, and its costs:

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Moore's camera registers the shock on Finnish educators’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools eliminated music, art, poetry and other pursuits in order to focus almost exclusively on testing. Though lighthearted in tone, the segment really drives home the depressing degree to which so many U.S. students receive an impoverished education—one barely worthy of the name—unless they luck into a voucher for a high-end charter school or have the independent means for an expensive private one. In Finland, says the Minister of Education, “all the schools are equal. You never ask where the best school is.”

It’s also illegal in Finland to profit from schooling. Wealthy parents have to ensure that neighborhood schools can give their kids the best education possible, because they are the only option. Many people in the U.S. object to comparisons like Moore’s by noting that societies like Finland are “homogenous” next to what may seem to them like maddening cultural diversity in the U.S. However, Finland has incorporated (not without difficulty) large immigrant and refugee populations---even as its schools continue to improve. The government has responded in part to rising immigration with educational solutions such as this one, a "national initiative to reinforce Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) as significant stakeholders in migrants' integration."

The subtantive differences between the two countries’ educational systems may have less to do with demography and more to do with economics and the training and social status of teachers.

In Finland, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a primary school class without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.” Teaching “is the most admired job in Finland next to medical doctors.” And as Dana Goldstein points out at The Nation—a fact Waiting for Superman failed to mention---Finnish teachers are “gasp!—unionized and granted tenure.” Perhaps an even more significant difference the documentary glossed over: in Finland, “families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.”

Hundreds of studies in recent years substantiate this claim. It would seem intuitive that stresses associated with hunger and poverty would have a pernicious effect on learning, especially when poorer schools are so egregiously under-resourced. And the data says as much, to varying degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slashing breakfast and lunch programs that feed hungry children and deciding whether to uninsure millions of families as millions more still lack basic health coverage. Most every American parent knows that quality daycares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent university education in this country.

It seems to many of us that the atrocious state of the U.S. educational system can only be attributed to an act of will on the part our political elite, who see schools as competition for fundamentalist belief systems, opportunities to punish their opponents out of spite, or as rich fields for private profit. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to create their current system. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end---along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they've since shown there can be systems that, while surely imperfect in their own way, work for all kids, embedded within larger systems that prize their teachers and families.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stanford Researchers Discover a Smarter Way to Prepare for Exams: Introducing MetaCognition, the Art of Thinking About Your Thinking

Early in the second season of Noah Hawley’s excellent Fargo series, one of the gruff, laconic Gerhardt brothers shakes his head during a tense crime family moment and mutters sagely, "know thyself." Challenged to produce the quotation’s source, he says, with irritated self-assurance, “It’s in the Bible.” The quote does have an ancient origin---maybe the temple of Apollo at Delphi, maybe the temple court at Luxor---and it's an idea that reappears in every philosophical system from age to age. Even if the self doesn’t really exist, some thinkers have reasoned, we should still study it.

These days, psychologists call a certain kind of self-knowledge “metacognition,” a new word for what they recognize, Jennifer Livingston notes, as a concept that has been around “for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences.” Developmental psychologist John Flavell used the term in 1979 to refer specifically to “how human beings learn and process information, as well as individual knowledge of one’s own learning processes.” Often defined as “thinking about thinking,” megacognition involves knowing what conditions best enable concentration and memory retention, for example, and practicing it can immensely improve study skills and academic achievement.


A new study published in Psychological Science by Stanford psychology researchers has validated the idea with experimental data. In two different experiments, students in a control group studied for exams in their ordinary way. Those in another group received an exercise called "Strategic Resource Use." “They were asked,” Stanford News reports, to think about what might be on the exam, "and then strategize what kinds of resources they would use to study most effectively.” Then they reflected on “why each resource they chose would be useful” and how they planned on using them. It may seem like seriously front-loading a study session, but the intervention paid off. Students who got it scored on average a third of a letter grade higher than those who didn’t.

Postdoctoral fellow Patricia Chen, the study’s main author, undertook the experiment when she noticed that many of her own students genuinely worked hard but felt frustrated by the results. “Describe to me how you studied for the exam,” she began asking them. After conducting the metacognition studies, Chen concluded that “actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life. Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”

Thinking about your thinking can’t make all the difference, of course, but the effect is dramatic among groups in relatively similar circumstances. An Australian study of 2000 Ph.D. students discovered a close correlation between “how they thought about the learning process,” notes Big Think, and “their successes and failures in achieving their degrees.” A broader study in Britain that accounted for class differences evaluated Year 6 and 7 students in 23 primary schools. In eleven of these schools, students were instructed in something called “Self-Regulated Strategy Development”—a means of consciously monitoring the writing techniques they used in assignments: “Overall," the authors write, "the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes,” especially among “pupils eligible for free school meals.”

Each of these studies necessitated methods of teaching self-regulation and metacognition, and each one formulated its own pedagogy. The British study specially trained a group of Year 6 teachers. "Part of the appeal of Chen’s approach," writes Jenny Anderson at Quartz, “is its simplicity: any student, teacher or even parent could use it.” And one might reasonably assume that anyone could teach it to themselves. For parents and teachers of struggling students, Chen offers some straightforward advice. Rather than suggesting more study time and resources, first “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?” As nearly every ancient philosopher would affirm, we better ourselves not by acquiring more, but by understanding and using wisely what we already have to work with.

via Stanford News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes.

Philosophers, technologists, and futurists spend a good deal of time obsessing about the nature of reality. Recently, no small number of such people have come together to endorse the so-called “simulation argument,” the mind-boggling, sci-fi idea that everything we experience exists as a virtual performance inside a computer system more sophisticated than we could ever imagine. It’s a scenario right out of Philip K. Dick, and one Dick believed possible. It’s also, perhaps, terminally theoretical and impossible to verify.

So... where might the perplexed turn should they want to understand the world around them? Are we doomed to experience reality—as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard thought—as nothing more than endless simulation? It's a little old-fashioned, but maybe we could ask a scientist? One like physicist, science writer, educator Dominic Walliman, whose series of short videos offer to the layperson “maps” of physics, math, and, just above, chemistry.


Walliman’s ingenious teaching tools excel in conveying a tremendous amount of complex information in a comprehensive and intelligible way. We not only get an overview of each field’s intellectual history, but we see how the various subdisciplines interact.

One of the oddities of chemistry is that it was once just as much, if not more, concerned with what isn’t. Many of the tools and techniques of modern chemistry were developed by alchemists—magicians, essentially, whom we would see as charlatans even though they included in their number such towering intellects as Isaac Newton. Walliman does not get into this strange story, interesting as it is. Instead, he begins with a prehistory of sorts, pointing out that since humans started using fire, cooking, and working with metal we have been engaging in chemistry.

Then we’re launched right into the basic building blocks—the parts of the atom and the periodic table. If, like me, you passed high school chemistry by writing a song about the elements as a final project, you may be unlikely to remember the various types of chemical bonds and may never have heard of “Van der Waals bonding.” There's an opportunity to look something up. And there's nothing wrong with being a primarily auditory or visual learner. Walliman's instruction does a real service for those who are.

Walliman moves through the basics briskly and into the differences between and uses of organic and inorganic chemistry. As the animation pulls back to reveal the full map, we see it is comprised of two halves: “rules of chemistry” and “areas of chemistry.” We do not get explanations for the extreme end of the latter category. Fields like “computational chemistry” are left unexplored, perhaps because they are too far outside Walliman's expertise. One refreshing feature of the videos on his “Domain of Science” channel is their intellectual humility.

If you’ve enjoyed the physics and mathematics videos, for example, you should check back in with their Youtube pages, where Walliman has posted lists of corrections. He has a list as well on the chemistry video page. “I endeavour to be as accurate as possible in my videos," he writes here, "but I am human and definitely don’t know everything, so there are sometimes mistakes. Also, due to the nature of my videos, there are bound to be oversimplifications." It’s an admission that, from my perspective, should inspire more, not less, confidence in his instruction. Ideally, scientists should be driven by curiosity, not vanity, though that is also an all-too-human trait. (See many more maps, experiments, instructional videos, and talks on Walliman's website.)

In the “Map of Physics,” you’ll note that we eventually reach a gaping “chasm of ignorance”—a place where no one has any idea what’s going on. Maybe this is where we reach the edges of the simulation. But most scientists, whether physicists, chemists, or mathematicians, would rather reserve judgment and keep building on what they know with some degree of certainty. You can see a full image of the “Map of Chemistry” further up, and purchase a poster version here.

Find Free Chemistry Courses in our collection, 1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover “Unpaywall,” a New (and Legal) Browser Extension That Lets You Read Millions of Science Articles Normally Locked Up Behind Paywalls

Earlier this month, Impactstory, a nonprofit supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, launched, Unpaywall, a free browser extension that helps you "find open-access versions of paywalled research papers, instantly."

As the co-founders of Impactstory describe itUnpaywall is "an extension for Chrome and Firefox that links you to free full-text as you browse research articles. Hit a paywall? No problem: click the green tab and read it free!"

Their FAQ gets into the mechanics a little more, but here's the gist of how it works: "When you view a paywalled research article, Unpaywall automatically looks for a copy in our index of over 10 million free, legal fulltext PDFs. If we find one, click the green tab to read the article."


While many science publishers put a paywall in front of scientific articles, it's often the case that these articles have been published elsewhere in an open format. "More and more funders and universities are requiring authors to upload copies of their papers to [open] repositories. This has created a deep resource of legal open access papers..." And that's what Unpaywall draws on.

This seems like quite a boon for researchers, journalists, students and policymakers. You can download the Unpaywall extension for Chrome and Firefox, or learn more about the new service at the Unpaywall website.

Note: Over at Metafilter, you can find a good list of sources of, or methods for, obtaining free academic content.

via London School of Economics/Metafilter

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138 Short Animated Introductions to the World’s Greatest Ideas: Plato, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir & More

The Open Culture audience, by my estimation, divides into two basic groups: those who've read the collected works of the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and Plato, and those who'd like to. Whichever body of oft-referenced ideas you've been wanting to dig deep into yourself, getting a brief, concept-distilling primer beforehand can make the task easier, improving your understanding and ability to contextualize the original texts when you get around to them. Online education company Macat has produced 138 such primers in the form of animated videos freely available on YouTube which can put you in the right frame of mind to study a variety of ideas in literature, economics, sociology, politics, history, and philosophy.

De Beauvoir, in Macat's analysis, argued in The Second Sex that "the views of individuals are socially and culturally produced. Femininity is not inherent," but a societal mechanism long used "to keep men dominant."


According to their video on Foucault's Discipline and Punish, that famous book "explores the evolution of power since the Middle Ages," culminating in the argument that "modern states have moved away from exploring their authority physically to enforcing it psychologically," a phenomenon exemplified as much by late 18th- and early 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon as by modern closed-circuit television urban omni-surveillance (a technology now spread far beyond the infamously CCTV-zealous London all the way to Seoul, where I live). In The Republic, Plato asks more basic questions about society: "What would an ideal state look like, and how would it work?"

For that ancient Greek, says the video's narrator, "the ideal society offered the guarantee of justice and would be ruled over not by a tyrant, but by an all-powerful philosopher-king." Whether or not that strikes you as an appealing prospect, or indeed whether you agree with de Beauvoir and Foucault's bold propositions, you stand to sharpen your mind by engaging with these and other influential ideas, including (as covered in Macat's other three- to four-minute analyses) those of Machiavelli, David HumeEdward Said, and Thomas Piketty. "Critical thinking is about to become one of the most in-demand set of skills in the global jobs market," insists Macat's marketing. "Are you ready?" Whether or not you'll ever reference these thinkers on the job, preparing yourself to read them with an active mind will put you on the fast track to the examined life.

You can find the complete list of animations here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Steve Martin Will Teach His First Online Course on Comedy

Can comedy be taught? The question has no clear answer, but if it can, Steve Martin would surely occupy the highest rank of comedy teachers. He could probably teach a fair few other crafts as well: besides his achievements as an innovator in stand-up as well as in other forms of comedy — famously appearing on Saturday Night Live so many times that even some of his fans mistake him for a regular cast member — he's also established himself as an actor, as an essayist and novelist, and even as a respected bluegrass banjo player. Still, despite his impressive artistic Renaissance-man credentials many of us, at the mere mention of Steve Martin's name, laugh almost reflexively.

Hence his place at the front and center of "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy," a new online course from Masterclass, the education startup whose faculty roster, as we've previously featured, also includes the likes of Werner Herzog and Aaron Sorkin. "We're going to talk about a lot of things," says Martin in the course's trailer above. "We're going to talk about my specific process, performing comedy, we're going to talk about writing." For a cost of $90, Masterclass provides more than 25 video lessons, a downloadable workbook with supplemental lesson materials, and an opportunity to upload your own material for critiques by the rest of the class as well as maybe — just maybe — by Martin himself.

Whether or not a master comedian can pass along his knowledge as a math or a language teacher can, anyone who's paid attention to Martin's comedy so far, as well as his reflections on comedy, can sense how much intellectual energy he's put into figuring it all out, even at its extremes of absurdity, for himself. Students unwilling to follow suit need not apply, nor those worried about landing agents and getting headshots, for the esteemed instructor makes it clear up front that he grapples only with the most important question in comedy, as in life: "How do I be good?" You can sign up here.

Note: If you want to hear Steve Martin narrate his memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, you can always sign up for Audible.com's 30-day free trial, and download it for free. (Everyone who signs up for a free trial with Audible gets two free audiobooks. Get more info on the free trial here.)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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