Imagine you are somewhere in a maze. And it’s dark. And all directions look almost the same. That’s how things are initially when one starts PhD.
And then when we discuss with our advisor, who knows a lot of intricacies of the maze and the way around it, one of the directions seems better and we start exploring that with a bit more confidence.
After some time (or days) again all directions look more or less similar, we are lost and feel as if we don’t know the way around. A chat with our advisor again, and things seem better and we pursue a direction that looks promising.
This process repeats. Again and again.
And gradually, we ourselves start getting to know some of the intricacies of some parts of the maze. We are not as confused exploring the way around the maze as we initially were. We know some parts of the maze so well that we can literally move around with our eyes closed!
There can be different metrics of success in a maze. Sometimes it is about finding a path out from some region of the maze. At other times, it is about finding something cool and interesting on the way in the maze itself. Not all explorations result in success (actually most don’t)! Most explorations end up in a dead-end!
These results about the interesting things we find around the maze as well as the routes we explored are the things which we share with others at conferences, and in more detail in journals. It’s our way of giving back and sharing our experience of our journey around our region of the maze.
It is good to have friends and peers who are in different stages in the maze. We can share our experiences around our regions of the maze with each other. We can help and motivate others when they feel stuck on a route. Together we can be pillars of support for one another!
The maze itself is not fixed, it keeps changing dynamically over time. And experts like our advisors can mostly predict how it will evolve in the long run. And thus sometimes things which worked in the past might not work in the future; at the same time, things which didn’t work in the past might now work due to the changes in the maze!
A comprehensive exam tests if one knows the basics of the maze and is capable to explore it around. It also tests if one is resilient against failures and is strong-willed to try again with the lessons learnt from the past failures.
Similarly, the state of the art exam is where one looks at other people who have navigated around the maze, the actions they took, the routes they explored and the outcomes they got based on it. Based on these learnings, we build upon and answer some new questions regarding some other parts of the maze or even regarding some existing regions which have been explored previously but the maze has changed since then.
Different mazes have different levels of popularity. Some mazes are so popular that there is a lot of buzz and hustle-bustle around. In these mazes, many people are interested in the new results, however, it is hard to do some novel work. Also, in such mazes, there is a tendency of peer-pressure such that people are pulled in the direction which others are moving towards. On the other hand, some other mazes are not as crowded. There may not be as many people around who can appreciate new findings and results, but that doesn’t mean that these mazes should not be explored. After all, to each his own!
Different domains have different types of maze. Each has its own specifics and intricacies. Mostly we are free to choose the kind of maze we want to explore and try to become experts in. And accordingly, we choose an advisor who can help us in the process. Ideally, an advisor is not just someone who is an expert of a specific kind of maze but also someone whose personality gels with ours.
At the end of our PhD, we pen down the whole journey around the maze, with the experiences we had around the maze, the lessons we learnt, the successes (and failures) we experienced on the way, and that’s our thesis!
And we not just become an expert in some part of the maze, we also discover ourself and our own capabilities and strengths in the process. Once someone has a PhD, the person is expected to explore and find the way around any part of the maze. That’s because it’s not just about knowing the maze well enough, but the capability to navigate in any part of the maze!
Happy exploration around the maze!