A PhD and wisdom

As a PhD student myself, I am disappointed that a PhD seems to mean something different, and perhaps “cheaper” than it used to. Obviously, a PhD is a doctorate of philosophy (in a more general sense such as “love of wisdom,” not philosophy as a discipline). When the public hears the word “doctor,” they often look at this term with a level of respect or authority, and there are certainly academics worthy of this reverence.

My concern is that modern-day PhD students (at least in the sciences) are not taught much about “wisdom” as much as just applied research and how to get publications. Perhaps the assumption is someone needs to be “wise” in order to perform original research, however even if this is true, publications would only be a subset of the overall field of wisdom (which could also include self-reflection, character/morals, etc).

Someone can publish original work in a specified field (and convince a committee of their professors that the work is good/original) without needing to be “wise” in a general sense. Perhaps this can even give them a false sense of confidence about their ability to understand work outside of their area of expertise.

Do you have any thoughts? Does a PhD mean anything reasonable or consistent besides just being able to do research?


Does it even guarantee that?

I don’t have a ph.d and never will. But I guess in general when I hear someone is a doctor, to me that means that they are up to date on the subject they’ve studied and they should have a basis for understanding how research works in it and are able to go out and preform related duties at a excellent level. They will still need to continue staying on top of their game through updated research, technology and skills.

It also means to me that it’s someone who should be at college level in core academic practices such as being proficient in math, language mechanics and so on.

But if I’m being honest, having a doctorates in theology , philosophy and things related to societal concepts carry little weight with me. There are people Dr. blahblahs of theology that accept things like young earth creationism, eternal conscious torment and so on. I guess I view a degree in science different from humanities. Not that one is better than the other, just that to me one is more centered on facts and the other is more based on social and personal opinions.


In my experience in the field of biology . . .

In reality, the degree is just the start of a career. Grad school gets their feet wet. It teaches them the basics of how to design experiments and research projects, and how to write papers and grants.
There’s still the post-doc phase followed by career development awards and grants. PhD’s aren’t expected to have the wisdom needed to guide a large research project until several years after graduation. Mentorship and experience are supposed to supply that wisdom.

It demonstrates that they can make it through 4-5 years of grad school. I have seen many who burn out after that phase and end up in industry or academia. Ironically, the world of soft money and research grants can be quite Darwinian. Respect in the field is earned over time and on the back of good research.


I don’t think so. A PhD shows that you can work on someone else’s research project under their guidance. They are the equivalent of an MD fresh from their first two years of medical school. There’s a reason why medical residencies exist, and the same thing exists for PhD’s.


True, though I think it would be more of after 4 years of med school, and maybe even through 2-3 years of residency training. It is sort of tough to compare M. D. To Ph.D as they are quite different. MDs are more technical degrees rather that higher knowledge.
Other doctorates are a dime a dozen these days, and they are far from equivalent. I see doctorates awarded after 2 years of online classes from 3rd rate schools. If you stick to Ph.Ds from accredited schools, even they are variable. I know someone with a Ph.D in religion from a regional accredited bible college that did not know anything about religion other than what the very restricted echo chamber of her school taught her.
A Ph.D from a respected school in the field of study is to be admired, however. It usually involves original research and mastery of that area of thought. Most I know of come after 2 years of Masters work then 4 years of Ph.D study. Then, as you say, post-doc. However, you have to take care as you find you learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.
Back to the terminal question, I think not only the head knowledge is important to learn, but most Ph.D candidates also learn something through the process that might be called wisdom. Persistence, humility, sacrifice and commitment are all things learned along the way that may not be obvious in the final thesis. Which is not to say you cannot learn those things working at Wal-Mart.


In my experience, there’s a lot of technical knowledge that a PhD must know in order to be productive, at least in biology and molecular biology specifically. I would think the same applies to most fields in the hard sciences.

One of the dangers I have seen is learning more and more about one very narrow area of knowledge and forgetting to look at the wider field. You can be an expert in lower gastrointestinal Gram positive Clostridial species and carry out research in that field, but may miss out on some great ideas by not reading up on unrelated research findings. As the old saying goes, when you are a hammer everything looks like nails. Sometimes you have to get your head out of your tiny little corner of the research world.

There is also a bit of a mindset like a detective or a journalist mixed in there. It’s the ability to sense a good story and an ability to use different techniques and paths to get to the truth in that story. Good science often has a bit of artistry and elegance in it. One example I often cite is the Luria-Delbruck fluctuation experiment. It’s an absolutely elegant experiment that answered a fundamental question about genetics, and it took wise and experienced geneticists to come up with it. Well, that and a faculty party with a few drinks and slot machines . . . but I digress.

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“A PhD and wisdom” – well, I’ve got one of those, but my impressions follow anyway. Most PhD programs in the hard sciences require 1 to 2 years of coursework and a period of research that lasts several years. The latter is primarily an apprenticeship in the techniques of research and the ways of academia, including designing and running experiments (or whatever the equivalent is in your field), analyzing data, and writing papers and grant proposals. This usually involves detailed mastery of some narrow part of the field, but hopefully it also includes learning how to learn – facts, techniques, outstanding research questions. The latter should equip PhDs to be good at shifting between fields and at assessing technical issues more broadly. Ideally, they also learn how to think about data, about uncertainty, about finding new ways to ask questions of nature. I think that counts – when it happens – as a kind of wisdom, though not the kind that helps you live a meaningful life or be a good human being.

Unfortunately, students often also learn to fudge analyses, to compete, to oversell their work, to abuse the less powerful, to think of themselves as superior, and to have no life outside their work. Wisdom, not so much. Mind you, I don’t know that earning a PhD was ever a particularly good path to wisdom. Scholarship, yes, but I don’t see a strong correlation between the two.


Here’s an old passage about scholars that I trot out from time to time:

As for those who write learnedly for the judgment of a few scholars…, they seem to me more pitiable than happy, because their work is a perpetual torment to them. They add, they alter; they blot something out, they put it back in. They do the work over, they recast it, they show it to friends, they keep it for nine years, and still they are never satisfied. At such a price they buy an empty reward, that is, praise, and that only from a handful. They buy it with such an expense of long hours, so much loss of that sweetest of all things, sleep, so much sweat, so much agony. Reckon up also the loss of health, the spoiling of their good looks, weak eyesight (or even blindness), poverty, envy, the denial of pleasures, premature old age, early death, and other things just as bad, if there are any. Such great suffering your wiseman thinks is fully repaid by one or two blear-eyed readers.

Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, trans. Clarence Miller


Wisdom and degrees may be related but not how many think of these.
There is a Finnish saying about degrees vs. knowing. I do not remember all of it but try to translate the key points:

A baccalaureate (graduate) knows everything,
a master of science has learned to doubt his knowing,
a doctor of philosophy has learned how little he knows,
a professor has learned that even others do not know.


The problem with education and qualifications is the assessment. If you can disseminate information and remember salient facts, or perform the appropriate calculations you can pass exams and gain qualifications. But, it does not mean that you actually understand anything in the practical sense. I am drawn to the humorous quote
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

.Having a degree does not guarantee effectiveness. I have known many clerics with degrees who are positively useless at preaching. And, in contrast, many a good preacher with no formal education at all.



I don’t believe these things can be attached to any sort of diploma. They are granted, sometimes, through organic, in-person educational situations such as Life Experience (“Accept no substitute!”) and the School of Hard Knocks, and they are available only to those consciously attending the School of Lifelong Learning, which is open for enrollment 24/7 during and for all ages. Tuition is sometimes free; often very costly.

This has got to be disheartening. My husband started his PhD in econ, the fall after we got married, and I started my first Master’s. He defended 10 years later, and there were two deeply challenging periods in that span, where it seemed he might not finish.
I know few people of better character or wisdom than my husband. But he was on that path from elementary school at least. He brought the wisdom to his program. He DID have some really magnificent profs — people of great character, who recognized and demonstrated the import of their work, because of its policy implications. “Getting it right” and “doing it well” are essential, because their work affects people’s lives.

About 20% of his office have PhDs and the rest have MAs, some of those are ABDs. Nobody in his office uses their credentials unless they have to. They are too busy trying to provide the best analysis of data to people who don’t know how the tax structure/system works. They know the weight of what they do, and they take it seriously, work to act wisely.

I work in a (state governement) department, where EDs are all over the place, and those with them use their credentials with everything, including a handshake. Yet, the work that went into those degrees and the wisdom involved in using them is no greater than what went into my 2 Masters degrees, or the wisdom exhibited by my girlfriend who finished high school in the Soviet Union and works as a cook in a health care facility in my rural Michigan town.


That’s faster than what I’ve heard. More like 4 and 5-6 years was what I have encountered (my well-known to me sample size is 3, though).

In my PhD program (which was a long time ago), the mean time was 5.6 years and virtually no one already had a master’s. That seems about right for the grad students I work with now – maybe a little longer. Those are in the hard sciences, though. I believe humanities degrees are typically longer.


The time it takes varies a lot depending on the topic, supervision, life situation etc. but the basic timeline here for a biology student is 2 years for MSc (after the previous degree) and after that, about 4 years to a PhD. This is closer to the minimum than average. The average is higher mainly because all cannot put 100% effort to studies because of family, need to work, or something else.

My impression is that a shorter time is more efficient and good for your carer but those using a longer time for getting a degree learn more during the studies. You learn from the errors and adversities you face during the studies but for a rapid graduation, you cannot have much errors or adversities on the way. A student that has passed rapidly through the studies is usually unripe and needs additional years in work to learn all the caveats and become a sufficiently skillful worker. That is true also for ‘wisdom’, a ripe understanding of the whole picture. Someone running through the studies has not time to think fundamental questions in a proper way.


Ha! :grin:  

That’s analogous to an undergrad cramming for a test over material they haven’t really studied.

The infamous and apocryphal Dunning-Kruger effect:



This reminds me of something Sam Keen said about how in his thirties he had a PhD in philosophy and could recite the last 200 years of philosophy off the top of his head, but he couldn’t tell what he felt inside.

My MA was 6 or 7 years, as I was teaching public high school full time for most of it and part time for some.

The MLS took about 6 as well, I think. Maybe only 5.

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