Appending the PhD Mindset

Say that your coworker makes this statement:

The pizza served at Mani’s is literally the best in the world. They’re so good.

What is the most appropriate answer?

  1. Hmm, how do you quantify the goodness of a restaurant? Is Google Maps stars a sufficient metric?
  2. No, “good” does not mean “the best”. You should always think about the exact meaning of words when you speak.
  3. You can’t just make such a statement. Do you have an argument to back that?
  4. Lol yeah.

After spending half a year as a PhD student, I start to understand when people say:

Getting a PhD is not about acquiring a set of technical skills, but rather a specific mindset.

I suppose there are many elements that consist such a mindset, including but not limited to:

  • Excavating meaningful problems to solve and navigating the uncertain process of solving it (#1 above).
  • Communicating facts and arguments in precise language (#2 above).
  • Maintaining a critical view of relevant matter and accepting arguments after rigorous reasoning and observation (#3 above).

I believe many will agree that none of these are neither easy nor quick to acquire. One must imbue oneself with principles and constantly self-reflect and self-correct. However, I think one should go one step further. One should make a conscious effort so that no existing mindset is completely replaced by the PhD mindset; the PhD mindset must only append to the list of existing mindsets. Then, one must distinguish situations when it is more appropriate to apply the PhD mindset and when it is not in a fine-grained manner.

Life, at least partly, can be viewed as a multi-task learning problem. While acquiring new capabilities is important, one must make sure not to catastrophically forget other important things in the process, which may not always be easy especially when the new capability requires an immense amount of concentrated effort to learn. However, I believe that such an effort is meaningful in advancing one’s maturity as a person.

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