The Purpose of Grad School: A Socratic Dialog

23. August 2012

David Woolf

Last January, while I was at a conference to give a talk on my thesis work, I had a conversation with a professor over breakfast. It went something like this:

Professor:  What do you think is the number one output of academia?

Me: Groundbreaking research, discoveries and breakthroughs that push the forefront of what is possible further forward.

Professor: Wrong! Try again.

Me: What do you mean, “wrong”? What else could it be? There’s no other way to make progress. You have a huge number of problems to solve, so you throw a huge number of people at them. At least some of those individuals are capable of making a big discovery.

Professor: So how many people end up doing that?

Me: Oh, probably way less than one percent.

Professor: Right. So that tiny fraction of scientists will get fame and glory, but what about the other 99+ percent? What will they do?

Me: Well, some will become professors, but most will probably go into industry, or finance or something else altogether.

Professor: Exactly! They’ll take the skills they learned in grad school and apply them in the workplace, either within their field or outside of it.

Me: Sure, we all contribute, but most of us aren’t making any lasting difference. We aren’t discovering the laser, or the transistor, or…

Professor: Ahh, but you’ve got it backwards. Don’t get me wrong: Those discoveries were immensely important. But the greatest output of academia is not the science; it’s the students. Everyone who goes through graduate school is given a vast array of skills to apply in a thousand different ways—in industry, in business, in education, or otherwise. The whole process would be useless if this weren’t true. The great, world-changing discoveries are just a fortunate byproduct.

Me: I’m not sure I agree.

Professor: Well, think about it.

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So I thought about it, and I realized he was right. Ph.D. programs are long but highly rewarding slogs, and it’s easy to end up with a skewed perspective. I’m lucky to have an advisor who has been supportive of both my research and of me personally, and yet I’ve still spent many years forgetting which was more important: my work or myself.

Grad school, though demanding, comes with great freedom and many opportunities for growth. In the past seven years, I’ve studied everything from plasmonics to optomechanics. I came to wrong conclusions more often than I came to right ones. I learned how to correct myself. I lectured on semiconductor laser physics and audited a class on the scientific and technological aspects of policy making. I picked up (and forgot) French. In short, I learned a lot.  Even if I never make a “big discovery,” I’ll be able to use the knowledge that I gained in grad school to contribute to the world in myriad ways. We invest so much in our educations that we often lose sight of how much our schools have invested in us in return.

David Woolf (dnwoolf@gmail.com) received his bachelor’s degree in optical science and engineering from the University of California, Davis in 2005, where he helped start and was president of the U.C. Davis OSA Student Chapter. He is currently finishing up his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University. His research interests include optomechanics, plasmonics and the Casimir effect.

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