What is science? What motivates scientists?

(My objective in this article is not to go into the philosophy of science but take a simplistic view for a lay audience)

What is science?

  • a method of systematic thinking, and creating new and improved understanding, a method of pursuing knowledge?
  • a body of systematically accumulated knowledge?
  • a community of people ?
  • all of the above?

Characteristics of scientific pursuits and scientists:

  • Curiosity to explore, understand and explain
  • Desire to add to the body of scientific knowledge
  • Accurate, truthful and unbiased descriptions, statement of facts; measured words
  • Continuously improving and changing theories and models.  All theories need to be testable.
  • No authority. Nothing is sacred
  • Enjoyment of the process of science, and not merely focusing on the end point
  • Desire to strengthen and enrich the community of scientists (teaching, research training, conferences etc)
  • “Immortality”  via far reaching contributions to human understanding

Should you join a PhD program?

I am asked frequently whether pursuing a PhD would be  a good idea. Here are some of my personal insights –

A PhD is a degree that is very different from a bachelor or a masters degree:

  • It is not a structured, time bound program
  • It is an internship/apprenticeship program and not a classroom program
  • It requires you to demonstrate original thinking and work
  • It requires a “master” to certify that you are capable of independent research
  • A good PhD program teaches you to explore topics, identify and define problems, and then research those problems. It teaches you comfort with ambiguity and fuzzy information, and create structure and understanding in the midst of a “haze”. Very few programs teach that.
  • A PhD is a doctorate in philosophy (“love of wisdom”). I suppose some love and aspiration for wisdom is necessary to truly earn a PhD
  • PhD studies often require you to dip deeply into a cumulative body of knowledge with diligence and thoroughness
  • Often PhD programs require/teach considerable patience and a healthy tolerance for frustration/failure.
  • PhD programs are not meant for creating “skilled hands” but rather “thinking minds”. Developing skills (esp industry relevant skills) is not the objective of a PhD program  all though it can be a consequence. Similarly, familiarizing the candidate with the ways of career researchers (including the focus on publications, conferences, peer recognition, academic honors,  etc) is not the objective but a side effect.

So, should you do a PhD?