Tuesday, November 22, 2011

If I were Dean of Graduate Studies: Rethinking the PhD

With the departure of Douglas Peers to Waterloo, York University is now looking for a new Dean of Graduate Studies. So let's say I put my resume in, and let's also say all the other candidates got struck by lightning. What would I do if I were Dean?

I've sat on the graduate faculty council, so I'm well aware that the nuts and bolts of graduate administration is mundane; even the controversies are kind of boring. But as your new Dean of Graduate Studies, I would address an issue that I don't see discussed very much: what should a graduate faculty be teaching?

My first principle would be this: education should be useful in its own right, not necessarily as a means toward a particular job; this logic should apply to any degree that a university awards. In the case of the PhD, the faculty of graduate studies need not be an intellectual trade school, in which students learn to be professors.  In any case, the model of the PhD as an apprenticeship for the tenure track is broken, and it is time that graduate faculties acknowledged this fact.

Instead, I would rework the graduate curriculum to teach a skill that is useful in itself, and something that every PhD should learn (but that not all do): how to think originally.

In suggesting this, I'm arguing that original thinking is a skill that can be learned. The best graduate students I've seen in my career, both under my own supervision and others, have had a skill set that includes the following abilities:
  • Recognition that a problem is original, and finding related work. Being able to find existing solutions in the literature is key, and often is only possible by thinking about the problem in many different ways. The first few keywords you type into Google won't find exactly what you're looking for.
  • Knowing how to get started on a previously unsolved problem. Here, skills like abstraction, modeling, constructing toy examples, and thought experiments may be useful.
  • Knowing how to catch errors. If a problem is unsolved, then the solution is by definition unknown -- so how can we rely on such a solution? There are lots of ways to check, like sanity checking (making sure the solution follows basic rules, like energy can't be negative, probability has to be less than 1, and so on).
  • Running with an idea. Original ideas naturally lead to more problems. Once the first problem is solved, what's the next logical step? And the next one?
Surely it must be possible to create a graduate curriculum that teaches students how to do this, regardless of the specialty (at least in the sciences). And right now, graduate faculties do a surprisingly inconsistent job at teaching these skills: it is more or less up to the graduate supervisor to ensure that students learn them.

I'm not talking about teaching students how to be geniuses; I'm talking about teaching  the nuts and bolts of creating new knowledge. If the PhD does not teach these skills (formally), then what should it teach?


Anonymous said...

Another problem, somewhat related, is the lack of free-aiming ability.
I'm a masterstudent in science with some ideas of my own that I find original and worthy of persueing, but for my mastersstudies I'm bound to stick to subjects already under investigation..
I understand it would be a costly thing to allow this fee-aim in studentresearch, but I do think it would be of greater educational value.

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