The magnitude of the original contribution of a PhD

I am reading Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh’s How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors. One interesting section is entitled: “Not understanding the nature of a PhD by overestimating what is required”.

Some quotes:

The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project – ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ – may sound rather grand, but we must remember that, as we saw in Chapter 3, the work for the degree is essentially a research training process. and the term ‘original contribution’ has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough that has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating.

We find that when we make this point, some social science students who have read Kuhn’s (1970) work on ‘paradigm shifts’ in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of him) say rather indignantly: ‘Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?’ And indeed we do mean that.

You can leave the paradigm shifts for after your PhD, and empirically that is indeed what happens. The theory of relativity (a classic example of a paradigm shift in relation to post-Newtonian physics) was not Einstein’s PhD thesis (that was a sensible contribution to Brownian motion theory). Das Kapital was not Marx’s PhD (that was on the theories of two little-known Greek philosophers).

Overestimating is a powerful way of not getting a PhD.


You would think that people would be excessively defensive when it comes to their most personal secrets and – while that is often the case – there are also a surprising number of occasions in which people seem eager to share them with relative strangers.

Telling a secret is cathartic, and I suspect that explains a good part of this strange eagerness to disclose. If there is something that you feel you need to keep private, it must be connected with some topic of anxiety for you. Whenever you are reminded of the secret you are keeping, you are reminded of the anxiety or shame or doubt that is the motivation for the secrecy. Telling a secret is thus a form of psychological unburdoning. This may explain why psychiatrists have such a lucrative trade, or why websites like PostSecret do not lack for material.

While sharing a secret can certainly provide a strange combination of thrill and relief, it doesn’t follow that this unburdoning is a good idea. You may feel an early sense of trust and connection with a person, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually use your secret in a way that harms of embarrasses you, whether by accident or by design.

The balance, then, is between trust and caution in a world that will not always treat you kindly.

Open thread: smartphone security

There are masses of important recent news stories on the topic of smartphone security. I have been filing them below posts like this one, this one, and this one, but they really deserve a spot of their own.

First news story: Micro Systemation makes software that allows people to bypass the 4-digit lock code on an iPhone in seconds. This could be important for people crossing borders, people who get arrested at political protests, etc.

Excluding traffic noise

My latest effort to avoid the constant sound of traffic and streetcar noise in my bedroom consists of wearing DeWalt DPG62-C ‘Interceptor’ Protective Safety Earmuffs over top of foam earplugs.

The earmuffs are rated for 29 decibels of sound reduction, while the earplugs are supposedly good for 32. The sound reduction doesn’t seem to be equal across the range of frequencies I can hear. Birdsong comes right through strangely unaffected, and the rumble of heavy trucks and SUVs remains perceptible, along with the clang and whoosh of streetcars. Together, the two forms of hearing protection do pretty effectively exclude traffic noise, at least when I have my window closed. Whether the whole setup will remain in place overnight is another question.

Wearing the combination is actually a bit disconcerting. There is a constant hiss in my ears, which I think is a combination of the hiss you get from hearing damage with the quiet flow of blood through my ears themselves. If I walk on pavement, each step produces a loud pounding noise. Even walking softly on a wooden floor in socks, I can hear my joints complain slightly when I put my weight on them. For some reason, wearing all this ear protection also makes me more aware of my body, from the mild ever-present pain in my left shoulder to the bodily exhaustion that characterizes the end of another frustrating and largely fruitless day.

We will see whether this combination of tools helps square the circle of a person who is always intensely irritated by traffic noise living in a thin-windowed second-floor apartment overlooking one of Toronto’s busier urban streets.


No matter what else we achieve, if the generations alive now fail to prevent catastrophic climate change we will be seen as failures by the generations that will suffer after us. We will be remembered as the people who had all the knowledge and technology required to preserve a habitable Earth, but who were too ignorant or distracted or greedy to actually do it. We will be the generation that breaks the chain of inheritance – which has links extending back through all of human history – and that passes on a degraded and dangerous world after having received a promising and prosperous one.

It’s remarkable to read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, published in 1989 when I was six years old. In it, he describes everything that is happening now: the growing scientific certainty accompanying increasingly perceptible changes in the outside world, the body of scientific research and understanding being assembled over decades and centuries. And yet, despite how the message has been clear and compelling for decades, the world hasn’t even started moving in the right direction yet, much less started moving that way quickly enough to avoid disaster.

The stupidity of what we are doing is startling.