Twofish's Blog

July 26, 2006

Becoming a Ph.D.

Communication is difficult when you are talking to people with different backgrounds.

For example, what does being a Ph.D. mean?  People aren’t Ph.D.’s assume that it’s just a like a masters or undergraduate degree, where you go through the factory assembly line and come out at the other end with a piece of paper that gets you some money and prizes.

But that’s not the case.  You don’t *get* a Ph.D., you *become* a Ph.D.  If you have a Ph.D., it’s not a statement about a piece of paper or certification, it’s a statement about who you are, what you have seen, and how you look at the world.  The certification really doesn’t matter much.  My degree is almost useless as a ticket for money and prizes, but it is a statement about who I am and what I’ve seen.  If you want to erase my degree, go ahead, I don’t think it matters that much.

Being a Ph.D. affects all of my relationships.  It affected who I married, and what my children are like.  I can’t separate my “work life” or my “school life” from my “personal life.”  As you can see, being a Ph.D. affects my feeling toward other people, and it’s part of my marriage.  My wife is a Ph.D. candidate in early childhood education.  An essential part of our marriage involves professional collaboration and respect.  I learn about educational theory from her.  She uses me as a peer briefer to look over her data.  We’ve created more together than children, we’ve created some new insights as to how the world works.  (See next year when her dissertation comes out.)  The professional collaboration I have with my wife is part of our love, it’s part of our marriage, it’s part of how we are, and it’s something that people on the outside of academia don’t quite understand.

Let me give you an example of how bizarre my world might seem to someone who isn’t living in it.  Right now I’m studying the dynamics of volatility smiles.  I’m getting any grades or certifications from this.  I’m not taking any formal courses.  I’m just reading and learning.  Now the stuff I’m reading is also stuff that MFE’s can read, but suppose some were to tell me that the obstensible purpose for what I’m reading is “useless.”  In other words, someone tells me that I’m destined not to have a job on Wall Street.

I….  wouldn’t…. care……

If it turns out that it is *impossible* for me to make any money on what I’m studying.  I’d still study it about as hard.  Because it is interesting.  It’s cool math.  It challenges my mind.  It makes me a better person when I understand how foreign exchange volatility smiles work.  And in my life, the important thing isn’t destination, it’s the journey.  When I think I understand something, my first reaction is to go and find something new that I don’t understand.  When I seem to have mastered a skill, I go and find something I’m incompetent at.
None of that has anything to do with whether or not I become a quant or not, and it’s really hard to explain to headhunters and HR people.



  1. Hi, I’m an undergrad studying psychology but intend to go forward with my PhD in clinical psych. Do you think it is a mistake for me to be seriously involved with a man who has a GED and nothing more?

    Comment by Ann — July 27, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

  2. The short answer is “I don’t know.”

    Here is the long answer…..

    As I’ve mentioned before. My advice isn’t any good, but what I’ve found in observing human relationships is that you really have to understand what the basis of the relationship is. What do you see in him? What does he see in you? Why do you want to get a Ph.D? Why doesn’t he want to get a Ph.D.?

    I know of someone who is a brilliant female computer programmer whose husband is a bus driver, and their relationship seems to work very well. Looking at why, I’m guessing is that she realizes that she doesn’t have to “impress” him, and that provides a huge amount of relaxation.

    Let me tell you another pattern I’ve seen, which isn’t so nice. A lot of very successful women I’ve seen, are secretly very unsure of themselves, and aren’t very good at sharing their feelings. If they admit they are scared, if they actually fail (which everyone does from time to time), they are desperately worried that they will lose the love and attention that people shower them with (and they might).

    An “admirer” makes them feel, really, really good. This poses some problems.

    I’ve often found myself in the role of the “admirer” since my background wants makes me crave wanting to worship someone. This has in my past created some huge problems because, the woman *wants* my attention so they don’t want me to go away, but at the same time they are afraid of what I might find if I get close, so they don’t want to pull me in. Also, there is a nasty stereotype of geeky Asian-American males that makes them “genderless.”

    Invariably I end up as the “gay best friend” with a woman with an “idiot” boyfriend. When I mean “idiot” I don’t mean formal degrees. I know a lot of idiots with Ph.D.’s and some pretty brilliant people that are barely literate and only graduated from elementary school, and then people that the successful women end usually are people with high formal education, but who are goofy and unreliable, and that causes problems. The fact that I’m not gay (which the woman *really* wants to ignore) also causes problems, and everything blows up in a mess.

    The one thing that I do know is that romantic relationships that are unequal always tend to cause problems. However, equality has nothing to do with formal degrees. If one partner in a relationship can’t respect the other then there are going to be difficulties. You may have more formal education than he does, but my experience has been that you have to see him as an equal partner for anything to work. He might have a personality trait you admire. You might respect him because work harder than you. You might respect him because he *doesn’t* work harder than you.

    You might want to help fix him, and this works really well if he wants to fix you (and really badly if he doesn’t). My relationship with my wife is based on the fact that we both want to improve the other, and that’s creates some pretty strong bonds (along with a lot of tension and conflict, but all deep relationships have tension and conflict).

    But whatever it is (and you are in a much better position to know if there is something there or not), it has to create something equal for the relationship to last. If the relationship isn’t equal, then someone is going to keep getting something, and things will turn into resentment after a while.  Again, equality may or may not have anything to do with social status or formal degrees, that will be different from relationship to relationship, and what people in the relationship define as equal may have nothing to do with what the rest of the world sees as equal.

    I’ve found that fixed rules aren’t very good, and I don’t know nearly enough about you or your friend, but I’ve hoped I’ve giving you some things to think about.

    (I should also point out that one problem I see in our society, is that there is a huge amount of pressure for a male and a female to decide quickly if their relationship is platonic or not.)

    Comment by twofish — July 27, 2006 @ 4:32 pm

  3. Something that you will also consider is that a Ph.D. requires a huge amount of time. money, and effort, and this will stress a relationship.

    Comment by twofish — July 27, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

  4. Enlightening post. Interesting blog.

    Comment by Rise — August 4, 2006 @ 10:37 pm

  5. […] read more >> […]

    Pingback by on becoming a PhD « Perfectly Reasonable Deviations — November 27, 2006 @ 10:40 pm

  6. I think I agree that this is an interesting post. I’m also doing a PhD and I agree with most of these. As regards who to marry, definitely, education matters just like other necessary bonds. But what to look out for is not the present status of your future partner, but the route. If he/she is educationally minded, interested, then you could ever pull closer to your dreams. Hooking up with someone who’s completely disinterested in you way of life can be much hazzles!

    Good luck 🙂

    Comment by livy — March 21, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

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