The PhD – 30 years after…

This post is by Dr Randy Horwitz, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. He serves as the Medical Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and teaches medical students and see patients at the University Medical Center.

“Wow. So I guess you’re not using your PhD, huh?”

It would be a surprising question if it were the first time that I heard it.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-5-01-06-pmLast week, another person offered their unsolicited opinion of my graduate degree and its apparent utility. True, the comment wasn’t overtly “snarky,” but the inference of years of wasted time and effort hung in the air.

I went to graduate school thirty years ago, right after my undergrad education, because I took an Immunology course taught by a gifted and unique professor who had a knack for inspiring students and sharing his love of a (then) underappreciated field. After taking all three Immuno courses at my University, in my mind, this was the best way to further feed my passion.

Thirty years ago, it was fairly typical to spend six-eight years in graduate school—a few years of coursework plus lab rotations, followed by the ever-important final choice of an advisor and project. Oral and written qualifying exams were next (failure relegated the student to a Master’s degree program), and finally three-four years of benchwork (we were all jealous of candidates in the humanities, who could “work from home” or spend hours in the library, rather than sleepless all-nighters in the lab).

And, yes, I do remember the anxiety—will I get scooped by a competing lab? Are my hypotheses valid? What happens if my advisor quits/moves/is killed in a car wreck?

Fast forward thirty years, and a post-doc, medical school, medical residency, and two Fellowships later. I am now a clinician at an academic medical center.

I see patients, attend conferences, and try to keep up with the latest clinical findings. But I am no longer working in a lab doing bench research. When folks see the “MD, PhD” moniker on my badge, they ask me about my research. When I tell them that I am a clinician, they assume that I am no longer “using my PhD.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Perhaps it took a few decades of perspective to realize that the value of a graduate education is to train the mind. To teach one how to think and to approach a problem. During grad school, my committee members taught me the value of knowing how to answer a question in the lab—using the latest technology in innovative and creative ways. But they also showed me that true genius is knowing what questions to ask.

I learned to love basic science and to appreciate the genius behind great experiments. I fondly remember the day that I read a paper by David Baltimore (Nobel-prize winning biologist) and shook with excitement when I actually understood the elegance and beauty of the experimental design. His genius was revealed to me, and, like a neophyte artist finally appreciating a Van Gogh masterpiece, I lamented the fact that I would never reach that stature.

I am now many years removed from my grad training. And, yes, I have not kept up with the literature in my field as I used to, so I’m a bit removed. But this distance has given me some perspective. Being able to focus on one area—one topic—is a learning experience unto itself. But the “life lessons” and thoughtful rigor learned from such an endeavor transcend knowledge in one area, and are applicable to all aspects of your life.

Not using my graduate degree? I cannot recall a day since then that I have not.

Thanks Randy! It’s heartening to hear that 30 years down the track the PhD experience can still be adding value to your life. What about you? Do you wonder what you will be using from your PhD 30 years from now? Or do you already have many years post PhD under your belt and can reflect on what the process means for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Related posts

Researching then and now

Writing now and then

15 thoughts on “The PhD – 30 years after…

  1. Nfreckle says:

    I have an “unused” law degree– which, like Dr. Horwitz, is a misnomer. My PhD research is in study cultural property, and I work with looted art, which certainly has legal aspects. But more importantly, I rely on the skills and knowledge I learned in law school every day in a variety of ways. Definitely not time lost! And certainly a privilege to have the opportunity to pursue these varied interests.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad I read this, because having done an arts PhD and now working in arts admin (ohmigod its sooo good to get paaaaid) I am so sick of people either getting intimidated by my PhD, or confused, or pitying me for “not being able to use it”. Or a particularly weird combination of all three. One day I hope to get a job in arts strategy and then hopefully more people will just respect me instead of acting all weird.

  3. Nina says:

    I totally agree with the concept of life lessons! A PhD cand be used on learning how to live! Not how to do a research entire life!

  4. bbryan1 says:

    Excellent article, the benefits can be transferred as the author rightly says. We’re currently looking at this from a research point of view, PhD graduates contributions will help us understand how the value of the degree extends beyond graduation! See below:
    The ‘Value of a PhD’ research survey closes 30th June — in a non-academic career and want to comment on value of your PhD? Looking for those who have moved on from academia to spend 10min telling us if/how they value having taken time to do a PhD.

  5. Arthur J says:

    OMG..this is the best blog post I’ve seen in a while–very insightful. It is soooo true. I’m working in a different field and still use lessons from my training every day! It trains your mind.

  6. Dr. Mona says:

    Ph.D. graduate school is the transition between formal education and life-long learning. It allows you to take accumulated facts and knowledge and use them in novel and imaginative ways. All of your experiences, including graduate school, allow you to develop your own approach to life. Nicely written piece.

  7. Handy says:

    “But the “life lessons” and thoughtful rigor learned from such an endeavor transcend knowledge in one area, and are applicable to all aspects of your life.”

    What a relief to realise that these tough 4 years of my life is invaluable! Thanks for writing this blog post.

  8. britdodson says:

    I think some of these comments that we get from people (e.g., “So, you’re not using your PhD?”) arise because they don’t understand the experience. I’m trying to change my mindset about this and see it as an opportunity to teach people all the things you learn in a PhD program.

  9. EJediting says:

    Yes! I love this post. I got my Ph.D. and I can’t tell you how many have either asked, “Why did you work that hard…for what?” or “What are you doing with it?”

    It’s true, the actual completion of it, going through the process, learning how to solve problems and persevere – that was priceless. Just the other day I wrote a book chapter proposal, and I was a little proud of myself for being able to focus, do it, and submit. When you do a Ph.D. program and finish, you learn how to have self-discipline and you learn that sometimes the work you do today may not pay off until much later. 🙂

  10. bnstein says:

    Thanks to some beautiful interactions with my supervisor, and the offer of paid employment i never completed writing up. The education in research remains invaluable 20 years down the line and is applied to issues on a regular basis even if i no longer have any major involvement in the research area i took a phd in.

    PS terrific blog.

  11. paperown says:

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