[转载] （柳东阳 著）读博，读什么？ /
（苗德岁 译） Working on a Doctoral Degree — what are you working on?
My mother has a distant relative, who was said to live in England and came back to visit his relatives in China in the 1980s. My mother first mentioned to me that he is a PhD, and that during his visit, he saw the black smoke coming out of chimneys and commented, “What a waste? You could extract a lot of things from the smoke!”There was also an uncheckable anecdote, saying he was given some kind of shots in England, and if he did not return on time, he would die. The impression left in my childhood was so strong that I still remember it now. For one, I learned a title called “PhD”; moreover, once “western countries” were mentioned, I immediately fancied about extracting stuff from smoke and felt that the westerners were so smart.
Farm boys go to school without diddling around what it’s for. A little over five-year old, I was enrolled into a “little red guard kindergarten”that was previously an abandoned cattle shed of the village production unit (we automatically became revolutionary successors bestowed by the red emperor). Crawling around the cattle shit piles, we were having a lot of fun. Then, the purpose of my going to the elementary school was very straightforward: to avoid being beaten up for stepping into the wrong side of the restrooms in cities simply because I could not read the signs. Having finished the elementary school, I continued to attend the junior high, for I was still an immature lad; I needed to grow up and get ready for marriage and becoming a bricklayer. I have four cousins and all of them are bricklayers. The oldest cousin told me that he had already got me a brick laying knife; I’ve never had to use it—what a pity! My grandmother was an illiterate: she learned a few characters after 1949 when there was a nationwide drive to rid of illiteracy, and then she forgot them all. Hence, she had no particular feelings about school, except for often telling me: “A family without anybody going to school in three generations is just like a pig pen.”What’s the use of going to school? She, however, had no faintest idea! Soon the junior high was over, and then what’s the next? Well, since my father only finished the elementary and my mother the junior high, the kids got to do a tad better. I’ve had to keep going—the senior high, college, masters, and now PhD.
So, going to school, from passive acceptance to active pursuits, from countryside to cities, and from a child to thirtysomething, I have bumped along and now entered into the trade. Then, working on a PhD—what am I working on?
First, working on a PhD amid lonesomeness. Those college buddies who kissed goodbye to a doctorial degree are now pretty well established with their own flats and cars. Those childhood playmates who did not go to college at all are now having two kids running around and a two-storey house, though still worrying about money every now and then. However, they are living a life while we PhD candidates are looking forward to a life. The bustling life of the city is not ours; the whispering serenade under the canopy is not ours. Ours are those lifeless bottles and jars in the lab! We conceal our feelings and desires in the head with untidy hair. Our evergreen appearance is the stereo-typed old students who only dig into references, work on projects, and write up manuscripts, perhaps with an occasional sigh. To emulate a net phrase: your brother is not doing research—he is doing his time: the time of abyssal loneliness. Everybody is bitching about the shallowness and impulsiveness prevailing in today’s society, amidst which WE, and we alone, are searching for lonesomeness—we are a lovable lot!
Second, working on a PhD to become a specialist. A PhD is not as its Chinese translation indicates: a know-it-all person. A PhD is a specialist. Upon finishing PhD, we are expected to become a “specialist” in our narrow field of study. However, we are not an “expert” with a far-fetched and laughable Chinese title such as “national level”, “provincial or ministerial level”, or “municipal level” expert. We strive to have a detailed and systematic grasp of what was and is going on in our field both at home and abroad. Then, we can jump out of the box to apply what we have learned to related areas of study, not to be caged in the tiny box we used to be spoon-fed as a student. Ultimately, we may become one of those names that must be mentioned within the small circle of the scientific subdiscipline.
Third, working on a PhD while working with other people. First of all, one must learn how to work well with one’s major professor and fellow graduate students. From the major professor, we learn how to run the lab, manage the research group, and handle risks and crises. Maybe in a not too distant future, we’ll become major professors ourselves, and we have to prepare for it by learning the necessary skills from our bosses now. The relationship between a PhD advisor and a PhD student is in some way like that between a boss and an underling, with a remote sense of “family tie” in it. This may be considered as a preadaptation for a real job in the wild real world. The ability of maintaining a decent relationship with your major professor now may prove to be vital for the real world situation—you will be able to squeeze by if not cruise along. The relationship with your fellow graduate student is just as important: you have to help each other, and after all everybody is trying to keep his/her head above the water. The senior students lead the junior ones; we are bound by the common endeavors: authorship of the co-authored papers, compilation/translation of textbooks, let alone grants and projects. Secondly, networking, though seemingly a “poor taste” but realistically a necessary evil. This will prove to be resourceful for your career. Thirdly, further raise your EQ score: being able to work with all kinds of people requires real talent. Why are some people so popular in the lab and loved by all while others are lonely souls, destined to fail? Incapacity to fit in is not a beauty unless you were a great philosopher only thinking about the universe and human conditions. We ordinary folks have to be able to stick together in the team work: how to stick is an art.
Fourth,working on a PhD while brushing up your language skills. In the age of “publish or perish”, English is important and Chinese is even more important. Writing progress reports, final reports, and grant proposals all require an excellent command of language. Good writers can lead you from thought to thought on his page, such as topic sentence, elaboration, and smooth ending, instead of being nitpicked by you. Speaking is equally important: it’s often more about how you say it than what you say. Standing in front of several big shots in your field, being able to eloquently and fluently present your work to them, and as a result, you managed to turn their hypercritical looks into the nodding smile—man, that’s real talent! “Practice makes perfect”: practice, write often and speak more, and every presentation is an on-the-job training. With a sharp mind and silver tongue—that’s your goal! If somebody were to make a comment like this, “Look, with a PhD under his belt, how could he be so poorly-versed?” That’d mean a total failure.
Fifth, working on a PhD to become tough. Is toughness a rare item today? I don’t know. But please remember, as soon as you start to work on your PhD, it’s a long road of no return and the favorable condition may become a rarity. Faced with unpredictable experimental results, deadlines of the must-be-published papers, you must adjust your attitude and deal with various problems with toughness and aplomb. The society is marching toward a reversed natural selection, and having a doctorial degree is no longer a pass to a dignified life. Without connections and a lucrative trust fund, we must struggle for survival by ourselves. Calmly facing this reality, we must encourage ourselves to fight, gradually becoming tougher and tougher.
“Tell us about what you know about a doctorial degree?” a professor asked at an oral exam. “It is a step toward becoming a scientist,” the student answered without a second thought. The professor winced, and left it at that. Then, the professor explained: a doctorial degree is only a manifest of your earning a degree in your field of study, and it does not necessarily earn you a spot among the rank of scientists. You may become an upper-level worker or a senior technician at most. A doctorial degree is only an admission ticket: it may allow you to get into the door at some places, and it may not elsewhere!
Working on a PhD is to have an idea of my own, to have some curiosities, to have a bit of bitter-sweetness, to try to fulfill my family’s expectations, and to carry on my childhood’s wonder out of hearsay.
Now that I’ve come, I’ll keep going.