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.” It’s Sep­tem­ber 26. That means fall is here again, and it’s time to bring you an encore pre­sen­ta­tion of Mat­t’s Illus­trat­ed Guide to the PhD. Have a look, and you’ll see the whole under­tak­ing in a less hubris­tic way:

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.

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Comments (48)
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  • Krista says:

    Wait, but you left out the final sen­tence at the end of the illus­tra­tion! It isn’t com­plete with­out it …

    • john says:

      I remem­ber watch­ing some­one one cam­pus bang at the bot­tom of their car for a good 10 min­utes with a ham­mer. I watched as a police offi­cer stopped, talked to the man, watched him, then left, fol­lowed by some main­te­nance vehi­cle, who stopped, watched the man, and then left. I final­ly went over to the exhaust­ed, defeat­ed man and asked if I could help. He said that he had a flat tire and that the spare was stuck under the car. I asked if there was an own­er’s man­u­al in the glove box, and he said he did­n’t know. We looked, found the own­er’s man­u­al, and with­in 60 sec­onds had released the tire from under the car. nHe laughed and shrugged his shoul­ders and said ‘they don’t teach us pro­fes­sor’s these kinds of things!’ We put the tire on and he was appre­cia­tive. nI am not a smart man, but I know where to find the own­er’s man­u­al in cars and how to fol­low direc­tions. It is my obser­va­tion that spe­cial­iza­tion can have the dev­as­tat­ing effect of ‘the death of the gen­er­al­ist.’ Even just basic knowledge.…such as that of our grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. Peo­ple may know a lot about microbes or strate­gies to deal with infla­tion or about ques­tions like ‘what is sci­ence?’ or ‘what is moral­i­ty?’, but a world that has more philoso­phers than plumbers will soon find itself with­out water or the pipes to car­ry it.

  • louis says:

    could you have just told us in the begin­ning their are bumps on the cir­cle ?

  • Art Vargas says:

    For what­ev­er it may be worth: As the num­ber of dents increas­es around the ring, the sum total of human knowl­edge increas­es. Right? Then, after aver­ag­ing, the cir­cle becomes a bit big­ger. Make sense? I don’t have a Ph.D. and won’t go for one.

  • I think it’s bet­ter to think of it as doc­u­ment­ing that whole strand of knowl­edge and extend­ing it slight­ly, not actu­al­ly mak­ing it any­more known necce­sair­ly. I’ve come up with lots of things dur­ing my under­grad their just not doc­u­ment­ed the ideas and knowl­edge still exists. PhD are the doc­u­men­ta­tion of knowl­edge to make sure human­i­ty will nev­er lose it, or let sci­ence delve too far into mys­ti­cism.

  • Sheri Oberman says:

    Thank you for this illus­tra­tion.

    As a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy, I’ve been heav­i­ly influ­enced by a the­o­ry of learn­ing and knowl­edge known as con­nec­tivism. George Sie­mans, at Athabas­ca Uni­ver­si­ty and Stephen Downes, at the Nation­al research Coun­cil of Cana­da orig­i­nat­ed, applied, and devel­oped the con­cepts of con­nec­tivism.

    Knowl­edge cre­ation and learn­ing is asso­ci­at­ed with mak­ing con­nec­tions, both neu­ronal­ly and between under­stand­ings. Con­nec­tions may light up or acti­vate a net­work of asso­ci­a­tions together…as in pat­tern recog­ni­tion. New knowl­edge as in doc­tor­al research cap­tures new net­works of con­nec­tions. so the graph­ic of knowl­edge, if you will would look more like a dense mat of connections…I think rather like the blo­gos­phere. Ph. D. research inter­po­late, extrap­o­lates new net­works of con­nec­tions from exist­ing knowl­edge maybe with very dis­parate enti­ties along the x and y axis such as Biol­o­gy and Mechan­ics to cre­ate hybrid knowl­edges like Bio-Mechan­ics. Alter­na­tive­ly a Venn dia­gram could illus­trate knowl­edge cre­ation.

  • Matthew says:

    I find it fun­ny when the real­ly “smart” peo­ple reply to this and miss the obvi­ous point he’s mak­ing. Be hum­ble and keep per­spec­tive.

  • Eric says:

    Get­ting a PhD is just the first step, a research career clear­ly does not end there. Once some­one has proven they can make a bump, then the real expan­sion begins. That lit­tle bump gets more promi­nent with each new research paper pub­lished, each hope­ful­ly more impact­ful than the PhD project itself.

  • kelly brigan says:

    The day I got my PhD I went to the gro­cery sto­ry to buy stuff for a cel­e­bra­to­ry meal. I had to wait in the check­out line for 20 min­utes. A reminder from the uni­verse that it all mat­ters, but not very much.

  • Phil says:

    I would think the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple get­ting a Ph.D. nev­er actu­al­ly make a bump. They are stat­ing some­thing already known in a dif­fer­ent way that sat­is­fies their dis­ser­ta­tion com­mit­tee.

  • Adam says:

    I agree with Phil. With the rare and spe­cial excep­tion, Ph.D stu­dents sim­ply stuck it out. A mas­ters now is what a BS was to our par­ents.

  • Patrick Boissy says:

    What about the post doc (or post docts) ? Is this lat­er­al knowl­ege and where are you start­ing in the cir­cle ?

  • none says:

    So they’re the pim­ple on the ass of all human knowl­edge?

  • QDV says:

    A grad school pro­fes­sor of mine took a few days off of the reg­u­lar cur­ricu­lum to talk about what hap­pens when one fin­ish­es their degrees It was his obser­va­tion that, once some­one got that piece of paper, they for­got the phras­es “I don’t know” and “I was wrong.”

  • J says:

    As a grad stu­dent who has worked for a psy­chopath with­in an insti­tute of psy­chopaths I have to say that this is an incred­i­ble accu­rate descrip­tion of our life. Thank you.

  • Mr Popolopulous says:

    all I saw was some boobs and then an enlarg­ing wiener??? what is that sup­posed to mean?

  • James says:

    The nip­ple. You did­n’t see the nip­ple?

  • Rock says:

    “Aagay doed peachay choed” run ahead and for­get the past.tat is y phd in bio­chem­istry in applied field gets neg­a­tive conc. lol

  • Francoise says:

    The way I see it is that it’s most­ly a prefer­able way of spend­ing one’s time to many oth­er options which do not allow us this lux­u­ry. By its own nature it seems far too arguable to estab­lish if we are actu­al­ly adding to human knowl­edge! More hilar­i­ty should be imple­ment­ed :)

  • sal says:

    I think this arti­cle was tar­get­ed to edu­cat­ed audi­ence who appre­ci­ates usage of visu­al aid. What this arti­cle explains that knowl­edge is at a con­tin­u­ous momen­tum. As we grow up and not get edu­cat­ed. Our think­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty abil­i­ty is just a size of small cir­cle. As we receive more and more edu­ca­tion, our per­spec­tive changes about things and real­i­ty and when you get a Phd. You get an oppor­tu­ni­ty to chal­lenge those log­ic and either deny it by reject­ing the hypothesis/logic and explain a new the­o­ry or fail to reject H0.

    So in a con­tin­u­ous momen­tum, if knowl­edge is con­stant­ly increas­es bump by bump and we dont edu­cate our kids at a same ratio, our kids will be far from the real­i­ty and based assump­tions not on the log­ic but on the pref­er­ence of ppl sur­round­ed by them.

    ex: Human repro­duc­tive sys­tem and human anato­my

  • Alan says:

    I agree with Phil’s ear­li­er asser­tion, and also ques­tion as to why only insti­tu­tion­al­ly approved knowl­edge is con­sid­ered to add to human knowl­edge. I high­ly respect the acad­e­my, and what has been shared with me by instruc­tors and class­mates, yet I chal­lenge the idea of being con­sid­ered an “author­i­ty” because of the degree.

  • Bob Irving says:

    The prob­lem for me is that the process of increas­ing the world’s knowl­edge a tiny bit seems to have reduced MY knowl­edge of any­thing oth­er than that tiny bit.…

  • Paul says:

    What sur­pris­es me most is the poor use­of Eng­lish and ter­ri­ble spelling by respon­ders…

  • Gwenette Writer Sinclair says:

    @Bob Irv­ing: Exact­ly. The reduc­tion­ism inher­ent in the cur­rent mod­ern “West­ern” knowl­edge acqui­si­tion path is sad­sad­sad. As is the lack of col­lab­o­ra­tion and the inten­si­ty of the com­pe­ti­tion on the “bat­tle­field” at the out­er edge.

  • This person says:

    @Gwenette Writer Sin­clair:
    Reduc­tion­ism is a direct result of us being humans. We have lim­it­ed per­cep­tive capa­bil­i­ties and infor­ma­tion reten­tion capac­i­ty. Rough esti­mates put total mem­o­ry between 1–10TB, more than like­ly around 3TB (Robert Birge, Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, 1996) with a use­able mem­o­ry that ranges depend­ing on a myr­i­ad of envi­ron­men­tal and bio­log­i­cal fac­tors.

    Include the lim­it­ed lifes­pan dur­ing which one has to suc­ces­ful­ly assim­i­late and under­stand com­plex the­o­ries and the hordes of relat­ed notes on these the­o­ries. One human being is going to inher­ent­ly be lim­it­ed to a very fine point in the grander scheme when explor­ing the edges of human knowl­edge.

    That’s unless you’re a physi­cist because then your knowl­edge trumps all knowl­edge, or a meta­physi­cist and have the abil­i­ty to attain infi­nite wis­dom and knowl­edge through enlight­en­ment so screw sci­ence :p

    I would cer­tain­ly agree that the state of sci­en­tifict pur­suit is bureau­crat­ic and dri­ven by the inter­ests of the grant-giv­ing par­ties. At the end of the day, what would you do? Give mil­lion dol­lar grants to research that has no prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion on a resource starved plan­et? I won’t be naive to say that all research is based sole­ly on sav­ing our­selves, there is sub­stan­tial mil­i­tary inter­est as well. Maybe if/when we find our­selves in a less resource lim­it­ing sit­u­a­tion we might once again do research for the sake of know­ing.

    For the moment, we need to save oru­selves.

    • jo says:

      meta­physics has been fal­si­fied by post­moder­ni­ty

      • Deskirtes says:

        Except Lev­inas’ very par­tic­u­lar notion of meta­physics (Total­i­ty and Infin­i­ty Pt1 A)nnAlso, the post­mod­ern con­di­tion does not fal­si­fy, it affirms.

  • Chris says:


  • Li says:

    phd = nip­ples of the world cir­cle

  • fundzi says:

    Last Point: Keep push­inggg… until it looks like a boob with erect­ed nip­ple ;)

  • mrfun says:

    Screw it. Go to busi­ness school instead!

    • Hume's JustUs says:

      Replace “Knowl­edge” with “Indus­try” and the rest is the same. Whether that is a ‘good’ thing or not is up to you.

  • mrfun says:

    Some peo­ple’s bumps are big­ger than oth­er’s.

  • Just to keep this in per­spec­tive, let’s not for­get the def­i­n­i­tion of an expert: Some­one who knows more and more about less and less until even­tu­al­ly s/he knows every­thing about noth­ing.

  • hanziou says:

    I remem­ber a ver­sion of this cir­cle when being giv­en advice about teach­ing a short class.
    As an instruc­tor, you need to find out where the edge of the col­ored area is for the stu­dent. If you try to teach inside the col­ored area, they already know it, and you are wast­ing his time. If you try teach­ing in the red and the stu­den­t’s lim­it is in green, he won’t be able to under­stand and you are wast­ing his time.
    The instruc­tor needs to present mate­r­i­al out­side of the stu­den­t’s cir­cle of knowl­edge, but close enough that the stu­dent can grasp it and incor­po­rate it into and expand his cir­cle.

  • mainlybacon says:

    The dia­gram says noth­ing about a Ph.D.; it shows that the author is self-cen­tered.

  • jon richens says:

    what if the cir­cle looks like a euclid­ean cir­cle from above, but real­ly its hyper­bol­ic? then to the per­son who has the “big­ger pic­ture” the work of a phd stu­dent would appear to be infin­i­tes­i­mal in com­par­i­son to all knowl­edge. But zoom­ing in we realise that the man­i­fold isnt euclid­ean, and the actu­al­ly area of that tiny dot is much larg­er than it seems..

  • Gugs says:

    This is the worst Anal­o­gy I have ever had the mis­for­tune of com­ing across. so self indul­gent and a com­plete load of bol­locks to be hon­est. Good for you and your PHD bulge though. Good for you sir.

  • Gugs says:

    this is world where noth­ing is solved

  • Dr. Ghostly says:

    Hey guys, it’s just a way of think­ing.
    Become mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary and think out­side the cir­cle.
    If you only have one dis­ci­pline your whole aca­d­e­m­ic career will sit there like a bull­dog fart.
    There are oth­er ways of think­ing and doing, just ask the Uni­verse.

  • Jeff McNeill says:

    That’s cute, but real­ly it isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly knowl­edge that has been enlarged, but unique print­ed mate­r­i­al. Most dis­ser­ta­tions are nev­er read, and do not actu­al­ly con­tribute to fur­ther knowl­edge (which is what the cir­cle implies). The same with most aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ing. Most pub­li­ca­tions are nev­er actu­al­ly cit­ed (except per­haps by the authors them­selves).

  • James says:

    You clear­ly know some­thing of gen­er­al­i­ty by being so gen­er­al.
    “It is my obser­va­tion…” And yet what escapes your thoughts in words becomes a point; go back to Fig­ure 1: and begin again; you don’t pass go, and you don’t col­lect $200 for speak­ing gen­er­al­ly by way of a spe­cif­ic ref­er­ence called ‘John’.

    Plen­ty of John’s like there is plen­ty of James’s, but I would nev­er use a mal­let to screw myself!

  • James says:

    Inter­est­ing, so I sup­pose your envi­ron­ment and expe­ri­ence were not apart of your cir­cle the­o­ry? A man with schol­ar­ly knowl­edge requires so much more to attain the greater human knowl­edge. Thank­ful­ly com­put­er sci­ence has become a pim­ple on the advance­ment of human­i­ty.

    Research papers take you to the edge of human knowl­edge? You have obvi­ous­ly lived in a insti­tu­tion­al­ized box far too long.

  • James D Freels says:

    I think there is also anoth­er cir­cle before the ele­men­tary school that is pret­ty large. As you get old­er you real­ize that what chil­dren learn from their par­ent before they ever get into school has a lot to do with how much they learn there­after. Yes, I also agree with the bump at the end from my own expe­ri­ence. The oth­er exten­sion is what you do with it after that. Do you con­tin­ue to extend the bumps, or do you become a man­ag­er and retreat ?

  • TY M. says:

    Any­one else notice the phal­lic sym­bol­ism with this…

  • Smoth john says:

    I think there is also anoth­er cir­cle before the ele­men­tary school that is pret­ty large. As you get old­er you real­ize that what chil­dren learn from their par­ent before they ever get into school has a lot to do with how much they learn there­after. Yes, I also agree with the bump at the end from my own expe­ri­ence. The oth­er exten­sion is what you do with it after that. Do you con­tin­ue to extend the bumps, or do you become a man­ag­er and retreat ?

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