Thursday, July 7, 2016

The PhD Thesis

There is an interesting article in Nature recounting three scientists who had looked back upon their PhD theses.

It comments:

Francis Collins shakes his head in bewilderment as he flicks through the pages of his thesis. “At this point it looks very much like another language,” he says, looking with puzzlement at page 71, which contains far more equations than text. The PhD was on theoretical quantum chemistry, and had “absolutely no practical application”, Collins says. Looking at it now, “it does feel a little bit like this was another person”.

Now  I have from time to time looked back on my thesis. I have asked what was the purpose of a thesis? Clearly in my mind it was:

1. How well could you convince some small group of faculty that you were capable of eventually doing real research and not embarrass the institution.

2. In some cases it was your advertisement for a job. This was not the case in engineering.

3. It was a tests to see how much pain you could go through and still persevere.

4. In the old days, before say 1970, you were not tied as a research assistant and thus cheap labor. You were funded by other means, I was junior faculty. So the game was to continue the turnover to get new funding of such positions. Today they are all extinct.

But I was a bit different having spent time in industry, having written a book, having published, and thus having already demonstrated some of the steps that the thesis would prove. Thus my thesis was chosen to get me out as soon as possible, it took eighteen months. Not bad considering. Yet the thesis was what the faculty advisor wanted, not what I would have considered important. My first book has more legs than my thesis, but the thesis was what gets the degree, not your accomplishments.

Fifty years later I still use my book, never used my thesis. However what is shocking is that on Research Gate some 44 people in one year downloaded a 50 year old thesis. Maybe they saw something there. I for some strange reason keep thinking I could go back to it again, perhaps when I turn eighty!