Friday, April 08, 2011

PhD 1.0: Critical Thinking

If your best friend were to enter a doctoral program and the next time you were going to see her was when she graduated, what do you supposed you would notice that is different about her?

Well, she may have picked up some big new words like, “epistemology” or new phrases like, “conceptual framework” or “structural equation modeling.” These words and phrases may seem important to her even though to you they sound like something between mumbo and jumbo. She may seem to have gained some confidence, which may or may not be genuine. She may have an unusual concern for things like sample size and generalizability or even methodological rigor and you’re curious and a little perplexed at how many areas of life she thinks that these things apply to. She may have a great big group of new friends, the kind of friends that talk about epistemology and conceptual frameworks and structural equation modeling. They laugh and tell jokes that involve these words. You are trying hard to figure out how a joke with the punch line “n=1” has any humor to it at all, but you see them all laughing and you laugh a little trying to fit in, and then sip your drink to take the edge off this surreal world your friend now occupies. 

Of all of the transformations you would notice about your friend having gone through in a doctoral program, you would probably notice that she thinks differently than she used to. She’ll have more question than she used to. Sometimes these questions are brilliant and insightful. She will likely impress you with her questions. And then again, her questions may get to be quite annoying and pretentious. They may smack of an intellectual, yet dark skepticism, even about things like going on a picnic or waterskiing. You may begin to wonder if there is anything your friend likes, enjoys, or even believes anymore. It’s kind of a big deal because you have a whole friendship based on things you both like, enjoy, and believe.

One time, you were having a discussion about something and she systematically shredded the entire belief system with her questions. What was so shocking is that it was the belief system you recall her having before graduate school; it was one of the best things about your friend. She seems to have a newfound and unwavering commitment to find everything wrong with everything. You’re concerned because you’re afraid she’s become a negative person.

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