What does it Mean to Have a PhD: Myths of Specialization and Departmental Expertise

Following are the myths about the PhD degree that have created an aura of difficulty around the PhD degree that discourages many from undertaking the plunge.

  1. Myth: A PhD in your subject of specialization makes you the expert of the entire area i.e. department to which that subject specialization belongs. 
  2. Myth: PhDs are department specific specializations. Hence, a PhD faculty can only serve in the department of his specialization. [departmental turf wars].
It is interesting to note that these myths are also subscribed by academics of universities and even authorities dealing with higher education such as HEC and PEC in Pakistan.

Myth-1: A PhD specialization belonging to a particular departmental area makes you an expert of that area!

I will start with some quotes in their lighter versions: “A PhD makes you know more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing”. This state of “knowing everything about nothing” is captured best in a popular local saying that a P.H.D stands for “Phira Hua Dimaagh” (twisted mind), which highlights the inability of many of the PhDs to climb up from the narrowest and the deepest hole of their specialization where they were confined during the 3-5 years of their PhD student life; and then are unable to reclaim their common sense and connection with reality.

Absurdity of calling a PhD Specialization as a
Departmental Specialization

The absurdity of calling a PhD specialization as a departmental specialization was illustrated with a sticky example [reference below] of how narrow a PhD specialization typically is. This example highlights the absurdity of the claim that a PhD research on (say) a particular type of insect would make you an expert of Zoology: Suppose you want to do PhD in the department of Zoology, and you are told that Zoology is too broad an area to be the topic of your specialization. So, you will have to drill down and, may be, select “arthropodology” which is a sub…sub-field of zoology. But, “arthropodology” can still not be narrow enough to be the topic. So, you will further drill down, and may be, select its sub-field entomology (or study of insects). However, your supervisor may still not be satisfied and would say that this area is still too broad to be the topic of your PhD. So, you will then select (may be) mosquitoes, but you then find that “mosquitoes” still may not be narrow enough for your PhD study. So, you may pick a particular species of mosquito whose habitat is (say) North of Amazon river. But, this may still not be sufficiently narrow enough. So, you will (probably) select the hairs on its hind legs. Then, you may actually select the third hair on the hind leg of that particular type of mosquito that lives in Amazon, and then demonstrate using a theory that you have developed why the third hair on the hind leg is longer than the others.  How can someone who has spent 3-5 years of his life exploring just the hairs on the hind legs of a particular species of a mosquito whose habitat is only the north part of the river Amazon be classified as expert of Zoology! But, no. Most people including HEC and PEC in Pakistan thinks that is the case!!!

Typically a PhD is a tiny extension
to existing knowledge

Typically the diagram I often make to depict the contribution of a PhD is as follows. If the line indicates the frontier of existing knowledge in a given discipline, then a small tip or bump on the line, indicates the tiny contribution made by a PhD. These small nudges push the frontiers of knowledge forward; one PhD at a time, tediously, painstakingly and systematically, using the established methods of research whose mastery is the intent of PhD, i.e. “how” original contributions are made. 

You must also see this excellent visualization that uses pictures to differentiate a PhD from Masters, and Masters from bachelors to further illustrate this point.

Hence, a PhD does not make you an expert of the broad classification of knowledge that is often the name of a department. A PhD in economics with specialization in (say) flow of national income, will not make the PhD holder an authority of the entire area of economics. Similarly, a PhD in nano-electronics will not make that person an expert of the entire area of Electrical Engineering etc. So what does a PhD make you expert of?

Melbourne University definition of PhD says:

“The degree of Doctor of Philosophy signifies that the holder has undertaken a substantial piece of original research, which has been conducted and reported by the holder under proper academic supervision and in a research environment for a prescribed period.”

Yale University doctoral manual says that a PhD dissertation should:

“demonstrate the student’s mastery of relevant resources and methods and should make an original contribution to knowledge in the field. The originality of a dissertation may consist of the discovery of significant new information or principles of organization, the achievement of a new synthesis, the development of new methods or theories, or the application of established methods to new materials.

It actually makes you an expert in how to extend the frontier of knowledge (original contribution) using established methods of research, and that it gives you the ability to formally communicate this extension of knowledge to the community of researchers working in the area of your specialization, as indicated by your publications.

By implication, if you can extend frontier of knowledge (original contribution) in one area, you have the capacity (given enough time) that you can understand and extend the knowledge in another area also. It is this expertise that makes some of the PhDs outshine others through their prolific publications in diverse areas, and across disciplines. This brings us to the second myth about PhD.

Myth-2: PhDs are Department Specific Specializations

Why some universities do not mention the name of department or the area of specialization on their degrees?

Note no mention of department
on the PhD degree of Northwestern U.

It is interesting to note that many universities including the University of Texas at Austin, from where I did my PhD do not mention the name of the department on their degrees, not even the name of school is mentioned. These include Northwestern University, Oregon State University, University of Massachusetts, Liverpool University Wayne State University, New York University and many others [degree images of only couple of universities are inserted here to highlight this point].

Suppose you have a PhD and go to a university and apply for doing another PhD in some other field, why would they not allow you? Because, they think that once you have mastered the art of making an original contribution in one particular field, you have the capacity to make a similar contribution in any other field, given enough time. If you insist, they will ask you to come as a post-doc and pursue any other new area of interest that you may now have. This broader concept of PhD is often ignored by some of our so called “higher education” bodies.

No mention of department on the
PhD Degree of U. of Mass.

A PhD certifies that you have now mastered the scientific method of making an original contribution to the body of knowledge; It is a Doctor of Philosophy in the sense that you now know the philosophy of creating new knowledge. The traditional meaning of the word philosophy is:

“the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, esp. with a view to improving or reconstituting them. ex: the philosophy of science. In the case of the PhD, it refers to this meaning.”

Of course, there is also a historical reason of why PhD is called doctor of philosophy: Historically all disciplines like medicine, science, logic, etc were called philosophy.

No mention of department on
Wayne U. PhD degree

I believe that both HEC and PEC in Pakistan have a very narrow view of what PhD is all about. I think they need to first understand why PhD is called a Doctorate of Philosophy. An interesting question that must be raised is that departments of engineering and other hard sciences often award a doctorate of philosophy to students who many not have done even a single course in philosophy! If they want to keep their narrow view of the degree they should stop calling all such “terminal” degrees as Doctorate of Philosophy! They should better call it Doctor of Engineering, Doctor of Literature, etc as many universities that “do” take this limited view call their degrees.

Departmental Turf Wars

I am often amused by the turf wars that I see in the Pakistani universities where a particular department is often found complaining about the relevance of the specialization of a particular PhD faculty belonging to another department.  The source of this problem is politics of the protection of the privileges and incentives associated with particular designations such as chairmanships of departments, and the monopoly over the word “engineering”.

  • The epitome of this turf protection war is the one raged by PEC that refuses to consider as engineer someone who has done his MS and PhD in Engineering even if it has been from MIT. They do not consider someone to be an engineer unless he has done his bachelors in engineering! I am not sure how their love for the Washington Accord reconciles with the fact that no such silly restrictions exist at MITs, Stanfords, Berkleys and Princetons of the top of the world universities. 
  • Even HEC plays this turf-war by restricting the entry into specialization fields in Masters and PhDs to those having “relevant” degrees at the bachelors. I am not sure how HEC’s love for QoS rankings keeps them oblivious of the top universities of the world that do not have such restrictions beyond what your graduate supervisor may stipulate. 

Not to be left behind by PEC are the inspectors from HEC trying to ensure that the faculty of a particular department must have PhDs whose specialization lies strictly in the area of that department. I am sure some of these “knowledgeable” inspectors and their policy makers would also raise objection to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of MIT, who did his PhD in Linguistics in 1950s if he was found working as faculty of philosophy department or computer science department or political science department or music department or education department or history department or psychology department! People like Chomsky can never be categorized and limited in one field. How could they have gained the following expertise, if they had not worked with other departments and their specializations:

Chomsky has been a highly influential academic figure throughout his career, and was cited within the field of Arts and Humanities more often than any other living scholar between 1980 and 1992. He was also the eighth most cited scholar overall within the Arts and Humanities Citation Index during the same period.[30][31][32][33] His work has influenced fields such as artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, logic, mathematicsmusic theory and analysispolitical scienceprogramming language theory andpsychology.[32][33][34][35][36] Chomsky continues to be well known as a political activist, and a leading critic of U.S. foreign policystate capitalism, and the mainstream news media. Ideologically, he aligns himself with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.[37]  [Wikipedia]

James C Browne was my PhD supervisor professor at the University of Texas at Austin . He was simultaneously a professor in Computer Science, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Professor of Physics and had supervised students of such diverse fields as aerospace engineering and also had interest in “constructive capitalism”:

“He attained fellow status in five different professional societies across several areas including the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute for Constructive Capitalism. Browne received the 2004 University of Texas at Austin Career Research Excellence Award for maintaining a superior research program across multiple fields over a 45-year career during which he supervised or co-supervised the Ph.D. research of 69 students in four different fields.” 

These are not just two isolated examples. A simple scan of the web will provide you of hundreds of examples of top American university professors who do not limit themselves to only the area of their original specialization in which they did their PhD, but actually spread out their knowledge around in diverse fields. Their seminal work in other areas creates new fields and even departments. Often the most interesting and most impact full research is interdisciplinary; the research conducted on the boundaries of two hitherto considered diverse fields.

But, here we have the two apex bodies of higher education in Pakistan and professors from government bureaucratic universities trying to safeguard their territories and trying to limit and constrain the reach of higher education.

If these bodies continue to propagate this myth, we must demand and insist that all senior officials of “Higher Education Commission” must have a PhD in Education, and that too dealing specifically with “higher” education. All such officials of HEC and PEC who do not have a PhD in “Higher Education” should be moved to the departments representing their field of specialization when they did their PhD! Similarly, all top officials of PEC dealing with education matters MUST have their PhDs in Engineering Education field. They must also be asked to ensure that all deans, policy makers and heads of academics departments of universities must also have a PhD in the higher education of their relevant disciplines. These PhDs must have done at least 30 credit hours of “relevant courses” in education at the bachelor level, and their MS and PhD should be a specialization in higher education relating to their disciplines!


The PhD specialization example of the hairs on the hind leg of a mosquito that lives in Amazon rain forest and its relationship with Zoology was told to me in early 1970s by my uncle Mr. S Irtiqa Zaidi, who was told this by Dr Sajjad, Head of Department of Entomology at the University of Jamshoro (Sind) in the late 1960s. He has the following recollection from that exchange:

“Dr Sajjad was my relative,and invited me on dinner when I was doing my Masters in Agriculture College Tando jam. During discussion he revealed the topic of his Phd. I was amazed and also argued with him, how his Phd will benefit his students. Since I was too young compared to Dr Sajjad, so he ignored my remarks, may be he did not like me to take liberty with a Phd scholar!”

 It is interesting to note how sticky such stories can be [Sticky from “Made to Stick” by Dan and Chip Heath]. Dr Imran S Bajwa who did his Master’s Thesis with me about ten years ago on reading this post commented that not only that he remembers this anecdote that I told him in 2003, but he is also relating the same example to his students at the University of Bahawalpur.

See My Other Posts Related to PhD:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD

See Also:


29 responses to “What does it Mean to Have a PhD: Myths of Specialization and Departmental Expertise”

  1. Interesting write up. Having been exposed substantially to both industry and academia, it appears to me that universities (though having a high desire to link up with industry), suffer from high managerial myopia. The contents of this excellent write up highlight that myopia.

  2. Departmental turf wars are everywhere. Protection of my turf, my privileges, my powers, my jurisdiction is present in most organizations. How to develop a culture in organizations where one rises above these considerations and focus on the personal, professional and organizational objectives all aligned together is the managerial challenge.

  3. Research findings suggest, as does my own personal experience, that turf wars are minimal in organizations who have thought through structure, resources and culture and aligned the three to their strategy.

    In addition, when structure and resources have been thought through, it becomes much easier to establish responsibilities and performance criteria and rewards and align everything better.

    (I personally have little hope that in Pakistan we will get this right soon. I hope I am wrong?).

  4. I think the ball is in our court, the higher education institutes. Our responsibility is not just to teach a few books diligently, but extends to actually producing change and transformational leaders for tomorrow. Thousands of students are with us for years under our watch. If we can't then who will!

  5. There could be some creative ways planned to engage Ph.D. candidates. Like a bi-monthly Ph.D. forum where all students come to a platform for academic discourse. I had experienced this during my visit to Princeton University that they have allocated a hall for Ph.D. /Ph.D learning lounge. The setup is very conducive, it has computers, free wifi, tea and coffee maker etc. Ph.D. students engage in literary discourse over there and plan their own get togethers and sometimes some sessions/inviting guest speakers etc. The local example of this kind of model can also be seen at T2F. They have alot of such activities going on. I think universities could/should ideally establish their own learning lounges for Ph.D. Consequently, a Ph.D. student could be asked to be a coordinator for that.

    In addition to it, like all other students societies, there could be one society for Ph.D. /M.Phil scholars as well.

  6. One of the formal platform for such interactions among the PhD students and their supervisors is the "Research Group", where researchers come together to deliver colloquium and research findings periodically. They have often weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Then there are monthly or bimonthly research seminars where researchers and invited guest speakers present their recent publications/research work and findings. They are often accompanied by lively debates and discussions.

    Informal platforms for such interactions consist of the coffee corner, research lounge or tea room. Here you come across visiting scholars and other researchers even from unrelated areas for informal get togethers and chance meetings and exchange and bouncing of ideas.

    There are several other mechanisms.

  7. Received via email from Dr Rizwan Iqbal:

    Your article titled "What does it Mean to Have a PhD: Myths of Specialization and Departmental Expertise" is truly enlightening and based on facts! It is so true that during Ph.D candidature we try to address a very specific problem in our specialized area, and this is what brings depth and value to our research. In my experience doing Ph.D abroad, I had colleagues who always used to complain that their supervisors do not agree with their work. Usually their supervisors used to give such comments: problem statement is not clear, its not focused, be more specific, has your problem been mentioned in any recent works? After finishing my Ph.D journey, I clearly realized that despite the fact that these complaining researchers reviewed hundreds of papers from their field, they never clearly understood the notion of conducting research and always reviewed literature at an abstract level, never going into particular details of a specific problem .

    Regarding the second myth, it is very true that in Ph.D we actually learn the process of conducting research, not only bound our self to one specific area. In layman words, it can be best explained by the example of a man making clay pots. Once a person excels in the skill of making clay pots, he can make clay pots in any shape and size, whether it be short, long, cylindrical or spherical. In the same way, any competent Ph.D can make research in different areas, not only restricted to one very specific area. This is where comes in the concept of interdisciplinary research. It is for this reason that that most internationally renowned universities just mention the title of the degree, not the details of departments and specialization. It is worth mentioning that since last few years Malaysian research universities also opted this practice and now their Ph.D degrees only mention the title of degree.

    MashAllah, your article is worth praising and propagating!

    Dr. Rizwan Iqbal

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    A very thought provoking article! It's time to bring in a change!

    Dr. Rizwan Iqbal

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Totally agree with the example of pot maker.

    Dr. Muhammad mansoor

  10. Mansoor Soomro Avatar
    Mansoor Soomro

    Fantastic piece! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  11. Thanks. Would you like some aspect of this post to be further emphasized or highlighted?

  12. Very informative and enlightening article. I really enjoyed reading it. As far as a person having multiple specializations and cross section expertise are concerned, our (Muslim) history is full of such examples. I do not claim to be an expert, neither I m near anything like this, but I my self have gone through such experience. I have done PGD (IT) , MCS , MA from Karachi University. I m qualified ACMA from ICMAP. I have also done M.Phil in Finance from Iqra University. Now-a-days doing B.ed/M.ed from AIOU. Also have luck to be PhD student at IoBM and could claim to be a bonafide student of Dr. Irfan Hyder. After going through this article I have a reference to quote, about things I used to utter without any authority to quote from. (Abdus Samad)

  13. Qamar Zia Avatar

    Very Interesting topic and material in this topic although little funny but it is the reality of PHD.

  14. Muhammad Hanif Avatar
    Muhammad Hanif

    I have read somewhere that philosophy begins when someone starts to unlearn his cherish beliefs. So I think today I have unlearned my two such beliefs.
    The question that why bodies like HEC & PEC do not accept these facts has also been discussed well.

  15. Although I have only just begun my journey towards a PhD, after discussing with my teachers and observing others on the same road, I have concluded that a PhD is all about academic literacy. It is about learning how to learn not just learning the research domain itself. It is perhaps a process that trains one's mind to unlearn what they know and begin a process of learning a new an entire new area of human knowledge. If anything PhD teaches you to be humble.

  16. In this article, the myth of specialization is well explained and this article also highlighted the critical problems in Pakistani universities and higher education institutes. This article also contributed to my knowledge about PhD specialization topic. I was also under impression that a PhD is specialized in area of subject. However, now I realized it’s just a myth. We can do PhD without being specialized in broad field of study but by targeting to a specific area as well. Moreover, this article also explained about contribution of a PhD scholar in area of specialization.
    Furthermore, I totally agree with problem with Pakistani universities and higher education institutes. We often see people who have narrow domain knowledge about field which are looking for in higher education institutes. I still have one question in my mind, like international university supervisors, can Pakistani supervisors take PhD students from other area of studies? It should be allowed as PhD is a team effort of supervisor and supervisee. If HEC do not allow this, how Pakistani scholars would will explore other areas which are never studied in Pakistan?

  17. Thanks for the sentiments. Knowledge knows no boundaries, especially no departments and bureaucratic turfs.

  18. I would strongly urge you to go through the visualization of how bachelors is different from Masters and from PhD. The is there.

  19. As I mentioned, HEC & PEC policies are made by professors of universities especially those from public universities with little or no industry experience. Their prejudices are shaped by inter-departmental politics and turf wars.

  20. There is this apparent dichotomy. On one hand, PhD is making you spend the next few years of life in a very tiny domain as represented by the visualization link above and alluded to in the above post. On the other hand, it would like you to apply the concepts learned to many broader areas. This inability to generalize your learning from a tiny area, to the broader fields of knowledge gives the name phira hua damagh to PhDs.

  21. You have mentioned in your comment gives an impression that there is an option to select a broader specialization area also for a PhD. By definition, a PhD must focus on a very tiny area as illustrated by the visualization link in the article.

  22. This has almost brought around all those sufficient details and provisions of interest for the students which by the time and meaning they must need to bring around even.

  23. Everywhere you will find any kind of myths but it is only you who will stay out of these myth rather found the best out of it. go to website to check the recent guide and tips about the academic writing.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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