From Alice To The Mad Hatter: The Road To A PhD

If you spend just a few minutes on Twitter’s #PhD you will see a range of emotions displayed by those on the path to earning a PhD.

These brave individuals all seem to start out as shining little newbies, fresh out of the newbie bag – with wonder and star-struck innocence in their eyes, eager to start on their journey to increase human knowledge and be known as Doctor.

As they chase the white rabbit of their academic dreams, they soon realize they are spiraling down – not down a rabbit hole, but a deep, festering abyssal where dreams, happiness and wonder are exchanged for stress, tears, fear and abject frustration.

They battle multiple complications and obstacles, all coming at them at once, from all directions. Supervisors seem to produce the most anxiety and dread. Errant supervisors, abusive supervisors, absent supervisors, the handsy supervisor with a furry fetish – they all are problematic and add to the toil of getting a PhD.

Once you FINALLY make your saving throw against the bad supervisor, you get to read. Well, kinda read. Maybe read. You get to read all you want if you have access to Elsevier, if not you either have to get real lucky and find all your relevant research on open servers, find them available on the piratey Sci-Hub or sell a kidney. How science became so closed it has become a real disservice to humanity and modern civilization.

Then the clock gets involved. Days turn to weeks, months to years – and years turn into chapters. You see the end of the tunnel. Light harkens through the darkness, crawling its way to you – showing you a new future… no, fuck that, “major revisions required.”

And just as the funding begins to run out and your Xanax prescription has seen its last refill, you submit FinalFinalFinalThesis-Revision9-Version4-WithChangeNotesSierra.pdf to your supervisor – the second one. The first one took a job at Google. Well, they tell you he went to Google, you can’t exactly recall. You spent a few months in a black out drunk when you heard the news that you would need to reroll the saving throw.




You hear nothing back for a few days.

Panic attacks.

You are now in full Mad Hatter mode. At this point, you are sitting naked, in a room only illuminated by your laptop, tapping violently on the keyboard as you try to explain the scientific method to the QAnon trolls on Facebook.

You wake up on a random Wednesday, fending off a Redbull-induced stroke, to hear that your dissertation defense has been scheduled.

Can this be true? A smell of disbelief fills the room, reminding you you haven’t showered since you submitted.

The door to a conference room opens and you step through to see your second supervisor and other members of the dissertation committee. As the door closes shut you try to recall how you got there.

Time passes.

As the door reopens, the pressure seems to leave the room and the others congratulate you on a job well down. You are now a Doctor Of Philosophy.

This story may not be reality but it seems to be when I read the horror stories of others who have successfully, and sometimes unsuccessfully, traveled this path.

So now, it is my turn. PhD here I come! I have always wanted to earn a PhD ever since I met Carl Sagan. I love science, all aspects of it, all subjects – I cannot get enough. Even as I approach that time where cashiers will give me the “Senior Discount” I continue to be in awe at the things we have discovered. But I could never narrow down what topic to pursue. You can’t just get a PhD in “General Studies,” you have to be startlingly specific. Decades passed and I could never pick something; biology to chemistry, then on to astrophysics, then back to biology… maybe archaeology. I would read a new article or get triggered by advances in understanding of mycelium networks. Who wouldn’t want to do a deep dive on that? It wasn’t until I read the XKCD cartoon titled Purity that I got it.

With all of these subjects that I have an intense interest in, looking at this cartoon made the secluded seem obvious. Mathematics is the base code of the universe and a PhD in math would allow me to peek into the underpinnings of the classic sciences; biology, chemistry and physics. I should have known, but I didn’t. I was too busy in my autism loop process to take the accretion disk point of view.

I have decided that PhD by Previous Publication (PPP) is the best for me. The idea of it doesn’t trigger my autistic predispositions to testing or intellectual judgement. I kinda go at my own pace. I think about my project, write the papers that will take the reader through the story. Rinse and repeat until the body of work is sufficient for defense.

So here I go, one step in front of another, into the future – I mean, Costco to buy a pallet of Red Bull.

The Day I Met Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

I was born in 1963 and grew up on large doses of Apollo. Anything and everything that revolved around NASA, I consumed it with a hunger only a geek could produce. During the 70s my family lived in West Virginia and we would take these trips to various places in the state; Blackwater Falls, Dolly Sods, Pipestem – just about anyplace where we could hike, do a bit of fishing and pitch a tent.

On one such trip we took a wrong turn and happened upon the Green Bank Radio Observatory. My head exploded. I had no clue such a facility was in my home state.

There was a tour offered so we stopped in and took a short bus tour of the facility – the guide pointing out the frolicking deer, the softball field and the radio dishes as we went.

The last stop on the tour was in a little meeting room where we watched a short film and heard a presentation. The presenter, with a very distinctive voice, introduced a brand new film titled “The Power Of 10.” After the film, he gave us a short introduction to a program called SETI. If my young kid brain wasn’t blown by then it was blown now. I had never even considered that other civilizations could be using radio. At that period in my life I was an avid ham radio nerd and knew it was possible to pick up on interstellar signals. Only in ham radio, we called such signals “noise.” Whoever that guy was on the last stop of the tour gave me a lot to ponder.

A couple years later a new TV show about space titled “Cosmos” was announced and I was thrilled! Like the geek that I was, I actually had a notebook so I could take notes as the show went along. As the narration started I instantly knew the voice. Lo’ and behold, here was that same guy from Green Bank now on television telling us how Earth was the shore of the cosmic ocean.

So, I met Carl Sagan before he was “Carl Sagan.” I remember at the presentation he was enthusiastic and actually engaged with the tourists. Even then, his passion for teaching was memorable.

I really lucked out. I know this was not his day job. I am sure he was just at the observatory and couldn’t pass up a chance to give a new group of people a new insight to the stars.