Tuesday, September 13, 2011

how to get a PhD when you aren't a goal-oriented person

This afternoon I found myself in a conversation where, once again, I described myself as not terribly goal-oriented. Nearly every time this comes up people express surprise—how can I not be goal oriented and yet have a PhD—isn't that achievement only possible if one is driven to achieve a fairly major goal? The answer is that, no, that is not the only way to get that degree. Certainly many who have one are goal oriented and used that goal as the driving force for all of the work that is required, but not me.

In my case I went to University because I loved learning and had so much fun in high school that I wanted it to continue. For me there was never a question of "what kind of job will this degree get you later?", but only the question of "what cool things do I wish to study now?". The beauty of my approach is that one gets to ask that question over and over again, each time one registers for a new term, and each time the answers will be slightly different. What got me to move on from undergraduate classes to graduate school was the discovery that someone would pay me to be a student. This sounded much better than paying to spend my time learning things, so I completed my Bachelor's degree and enrolled first as a Master's student, and later as a PhD student. Once I enrolled in graduate school I did work towards completing the degree, but not because I was driven by the goal of obtaining the degree, but because when someone else is paying for my education it comes with a certain obligation of actually doing well in my classes (with the Masters) and the research (both Master's and PhD). Besides, both programs came with a limited-time offer on their funding—the rules of the game were clear—your funding runs out after a certain number of years and you have a choice—get the degree by then, or go without. I may not be goal oriented, but I do have a fairly strongly developed sense of responsibility, and if my part of the bargain for the "free" education is to complete the degree, well, yes, I do have what it takes to do it.

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