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.

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Comments (14)
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  • Mike Greggs says:

    I always knew a Ph.D. was like the nip­ple on a big tit.

  • Sue says:

    Ha! That’s fun­ny. I was just com­ment­ing, “Imag­ine that‑a total­ly phal­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how to com­plete a Ph.D.

  • Karen Tolstrup says:

    I did a Mas­ter’s in His­to­ry and stopped there. The thing that used to both­er me about some of my Profs was that if I asked a ques­tion that popped into my head based upon what we were look­ing at, often the answer would be “sor­ry, not my area.” While I get pro­fes­sion­al sub-cat­e­gories and such, some­times it feels as if a PhD is nar­row­ing the focus a lit­tle too far. I think there is, how­ev­er, a dif­fer­ence between the Human­i­ties and the Sci­ences in this.

  • Randy says:

    It’s a penis try­ing to hatch from an egg? This per­son has for­got­ten biol­o­gy.

  • Nigel Turner says:

    Look at it this way… they’re hon­est about what they don’t know… you’ll get many less edu­cat­ed peo­ple will give you an answer that may or may not be accu­rate at all.

    It depends on the top­ic. Any good aca­d­e­m­ic from Sci­ence or Human­i­ties will know the lim­i­ta­tions of their knowl­edge; know when that they don’t know.

    Also take it as an invi­ta­tion to explore that top­ic your­self.

  • Dave Eckstrom says:

    I like this illus­tra­tion. I have often tried to explain to par­ents and admin­is­tra­tors why advanced degrees don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly trans­late to bet­ter high school teach­ers and this would have helped.

  • jason says:

    Came here from Phi­los­o­phy Mat­ters on FB

  • Scott says:

    What a bril­liant dis­play of aca­d­e­m­ic arro­gance; there is no social brain to who’s expan­sion we con­tribute. That bub­ble starts anew with every birth and grows to the lim­its of its sur­round­ings. If PhD’s dont real­ize that their goal in life is to enhance those sur­round­ings for the greater growth of future bub­bles then their doc­tor­ate is worth­less because they have learned noth­ing.

  • Tony B says:

    You were doing a Mas­ter’s and were unhap­py because you failed to get an imme­di­ate answer to a ques­tion that popped into your head??
    One of the biggest dif­fer­ences between the begin­ning of the edu­ca­tion­al process and the end is that nobody is spoon-feed­ing you any more towards the end. If the ques­tion mat­ters then a library exists for you to research it (these days Wikipedia is often a good place to start to find rel­e­vant resources). If a Mas­ter’s did­n’t teach you to find knowl­edge your­self, then it was worth­less.

  • Miss L. says:

    No, they haven’t. You only have a dirty mind.

  • James L. Ellis says:

    I had a dou­ble Ph.D.mentor once advise that High School stu­dents don’t know that they don’t know shit. Under­grads don’t know shit. Mas­ters Grad­u­ates have an idea that they don’t know shit in gen­er­al. Ph.D.‘s know how to research in specifics how much shit they haven’t begun to know in a very iso­lat­ed sub­set of all the shit to be known. #invert­ed­tri­an­gle #hour­glas­so­fun­der­stand­ing #X

  • Sean M. says:

    A friend has a say­ing: get­ting a PhD is about learn­ing more and more about less and less until you know almost every­thing about almost noth­ing.

  • Deon Fourie says:

    Oh, my flam­ing Aunt .… Is this what I spent 30 years teach­ing … or were they not pay­ing atten­tion most of the time?

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