How doctoral programs train the mind to think

How doctoral programs train the mind to think

By MD Aminu, PhD |

If there is any cue that I can take from my experience during my doctoral candidacy, it is the recognition of it as nothing more than the training of the mind to think. Before my registration as a research student in Cranfield 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.

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, a person must demonstrate that they have pushed the boundaries of knowledge within that discipline they have researched on. This means they must have achieved novelty. To achieve novelty, they must have started their investigations from an unknown location and arrive at a known new and significant location. To conceive and deal with novel situations, they need creative intelligence. In the process of creating new knowledge, they 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 synthesize 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 varies from place to place; the excellence of the institution of study in terms of their research output and impact; the reputation of the supervisor amongst their peers; the strength of the results (and its scaled-up implications) in the sense of how acceptable they are for high impact journals; etc. Thus, the fluidity of any of these factors or a 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.

During my doctoral candidacy, I realized that the completion of the degree required creativity to elicit novel concepts and report the findings, as well as persistent practicality. My primary supervisor was a world leading researcher in his field and he published his work in the topmost journals in the energy discipline, believing that publishing in low impact factor journals can only do damage to a researcher’s reputation. I equally worked with a postdoctoral fellow as a collaborator, who published several papers in leading journals prior to receiving his own doctorate. These two people that I worked with not only imbued in me the qualities of ethical research, but they equally challenged me all the time by taking me onto paths of critical discussions. When my supervisor was 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, that is 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 where they synthesize new knowledge.

When my friend, Mustapha Abubakar, presently of the United States National Cancer Institute, 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 rigors learned from the doctoral study transcends knowledge in one area but shapes all aspects of our lives. Therefore, 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.