The Doctoral Programme Is The Training Of The Mind To Think—Nothing Else!
30 January 2018
Mohammed D Aminu
I have been a doctoral researcher in a UK university for more than two and half years now, and if there is any cue that I can take from the doctoral journey is the recognition of it as nothing more than the training of the mind to think. Before my registration as a research student in the university, a friend who completed his own doctorate in another UK university advised me that to be successful in the program, I must have my critical thinking mode activated throughout the duration of my candidacy. I cannot deny that after I had registered for the program, and as I immediately settled down to outline the research aim and objectives while conversing with my supervisor about it, I realised the real reason why my friend’s only advice to a new starter was on the need to think critically.
As a researcher in the fields of science and engineering, I can easily understand why the research endeavour must be challenging. For the entire periods of our education, from the elementary school and up to the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, we were typically taught to notice already established patterns, and to solve analytical problems. We take standard tests and examinations that only puts to trial our analytical problem-solving skills, and we miss out on an essential aspect of human intelligence: creativity. Because of our ability to notice these known patterns, or for our pragmatism in applying analytical skills to solve known problems, we may even end up being the best and brightest within our peers, yet we can be utterly uncreative.
To be awarded a doctorate, you need to demonstrate that you have pushed the boundaries of knowledge within that discipline you have researched on. This means you must have achieved novelty. To achieve novelty, you must have started your investigations from an exhaustively unknown location and arrive at a thoroughly known new location. To conceive and deal with novel situations, you need creative intelligence, and you do all these independently. Thus, a genuine doctorate is not meant to be easy. In the process of creating new knowledge, you are constantly drawn in on critical analysis for introductory and concluding justifications; validation of conclusions; distinguishing of facts and opinions; evaluation of the credibility of information sources; clarification of concepts and recognition of conditions; etc. It is for this reason that some doctoral programs put in place a mechanism to help stimulate the mind on a critical thinking trajectory so that the student’s research begins by transcending the ‘pure discipline’, making the doctoral program to commence from a solid philosophical base that exposes the mind to tough arguments. Because of these emphasis on theoretical and methodological issues, the student can appreciate and can soon begin to question the underlying traditions and mechanisms across different spectrums of knowledge.
Then you go on to conduct research that gives you a lot of valuable experience such as the ability to write effectively and professionally; to learn to read from primary source formats, retain, and synthesise a lot of literature within a short time; to work in a team; to teach; to present at conferences and refine your public speaking skills; to learn to talk to different people in different ways (e.g. professors, colleagues, laboratory technicians, journal editors, peer reviewers, etc.); and to even do some administration. Due to the diversity of skills and experience that you get from the doctoral program, it cannot be denied that upon the completion of a genuine doctorate, a person should be able to construct and sustain complex arguments, ask interesting questions, and decide on appropriate methods to answer them. It must be noted however that all these skills can equally be gained elsewhere (such as through a professional role in an office over some years), however, when a person has completed a doctorate, it is expected that such a person can develop and sustain some reasonable and appreciable level of critical thinking and evaluation; which are attributes for success in a postgraduate program. Although it must also be stated that the quality of doctorates can differ depending on several factors, which could include the structure of the program which vary from place to place; the excellence of the institution of study in terms of research output and impact; the reputation of the supervisor amongst peers; the strength of the results (and its scaled-up implications) in the sense of how acceptable can it be for high impact journals; etc. Thus, the fluidity of any of these factors or the combination of it can influence the overall strength of the doctorate, and by consequence, the value of the experience gained from the process of earning the degree.
As a doctoral student over the years, I have since come to terms with the situation of my research, which is that the completion of the degree requires creativity to elicit novel concepts and findings, as well as persistent practicality to complete the program. My supervisor is a world leading researcher in his field and he goes for the top 5 percent journals in the energy discipline, believing that publishing in low impact factor journals can only do damage to a researcher’s reputation. I equally work with a postdoctoral fellow as my unofficial supervisor, who published somewhere around 9 or more papers in leading journals prior to receiving his own doctorate. These two people that I work with not only imbued in me the qualities of ethical research, but they equally challenge me all the time by taking me on to paths of critical discussions. When my supervisor is convinced that any of his students were not critical enough, he could liken the student’s abilities to that of a technician, whose daily activity, he says, is mere routine work; artless and ingenuous. During one of my progress review meetings, the committee chair advised that I read a lot of books on critical and systems thinking, and he equally confessed to me that as academics themselves, they do read a lot of those books every so often; to remain relevant in their jobs. Writing a review paper is a tough task, but an even tougher task is to have it published in a leading journal in the world. When I conducted a literature review and drafted a manuscript which was submitted to a leading journal in the energy discipline, one of the key points highlighted by the reviewer was on the need for the authors to be more critical. We held series of meetings with my supervisors to come up with more critical thoughts to make the work publishable. We worked on the manuscript for several weeks to improve it, after which it was accepted and published.
When my friend defended his doctoral thesis at the University of London, the last question he was asked by the external examiner was if the study program he had undergone had influenced his critical thinking abilities; required to become an effective academic researcher. His response to the examiner was that the program did not only influence his ability to be a critical thinker for effective researching, but that it has also made him a very critical person in his general approach to life. Many people agree that the ‘life lessons’ and thoughtful rigours learned from the doctoral study transcends knowledge in one area but shapes all aspects of our lives. I expect it as the norm (rather than the exception) for all people who earned a doctorate to be critical thinkers, until they prove to me that they are not; which could then indicate that they might have gone through an irregular doctoral program.
Mohammed Dahiru Aminu, wrote from Cranfield University, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SciComNigeria