Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Research as an Intellectual Exercise

One of the worst mistakes that you can make as a PhD student is seeking pragmatic justification for your research. It is a mistake because usually there's no immediate value behind it. Therefore, seeking pragmatic justification will only lead to dissatisfaction with your work. Instead, you should view your research as an intellectual exercise with no immediate value but with possible valuable side-effects.

For example, think about a sport, such as soccer. Obviously, there's no immediate pragmatic justification for devoting your entire life to perfecting the art of chasing and tossing a ball. In fact, the whole task is somewhat absurd from a pragmatic standpoint. Yet, there's value in soccer. First, it's a physical exercise. A side effect of playing soccer is that you improve your physical condition. Such qualities as stamina, speed, reaction can be useful in your daily life. Second, soccer invokes certain valuable emotional responses from those who consume the art of soccer: joy, frustration, pride, sense of belonging, etc. This is how soccer becomes valuable.

Similarly, you should view research as an intellectual exercise. By conducting research, your are exercising (usually within somewhat artificial environment) in logical thinking, problem-solving, and argumentation. From this perspective, the subject matter of your research does not really matter, just like it doesn't matter whether you play with a soccer ball (as they do it in Europe) or a dead goat's body (as they do it in Afghanistan). When others consume research, they may not learn anything of immediate value. Yet, your research may stimulate thinking, curiosity, etc. in those who consume research. Thus, no matter how absurd your research is, it may produce valuable side-effects for you and those who consume your research.


  1. Hello,

    I want to thank you so much for having this blog. Although your writings have thrown me into a pit of despair, I rather know the truth than to live in blissful ignorance. Well, not really. I would have learned the truth either way though. So I'm glad I found out sooner than later.

    I don't know if I will give up my dream of teaching, but at least I know what I'm up against and i will plan accordingly.

    I appreciate you. Keep up the good work.


  2. Hi Jon,

    Thank you for your comment. You know, I don't think there's such thing as "the truth". I do realize that my version of truth can be on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. But I will be very happy if you (or someone else) prove me wrong by his or her example.

    I think me having unrealistic expectations concerning my PhD program and academic life as a whole lead to severe dissatisfaction with my program and with my life.

    So you not expecting much from your PhD program and yet receiving a lot in the end sounds to me like a better scenario than you having high hopes and ending up with nothing.

    Also, by learning the dangers of PhD programs I hope people will direct their focus and attention to those things and won't get screwed up by them.

    So this is my hope.

    Good luck!

  3. By the way, if you like teaching, think about becoming a high school teacher. It may be a much better job on a number dimensions, such as pay, satisfaction, and job security

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