The PhD – 30 years after…


“Wow. So I guess you’re not using your PhD, huh?”

It would be a surprising question if it were the first time that I heard it.

Last week, another person offered their unsolicited opinion of my graduate degree and its apparent utility. True, the comment wasn’t overtly “snarky,” but the inference of years of wasted time and effort hung in the air.

I went to graduate school thirty years ago, right after my undergrad education, because I took an Immunology course taught by a gifted and unique professor who had a knack for inspiring students and sharing his love of a (then) underappreciated field. After taking all three Immuno courses at my University, in my mind, this was the best way to further feed my passion.

Thirty years ago, it was fairly typical to spend six-eight years in graduate school—a few years of coursework plus lab rotations, followed by the ever-important final choice of an advisor and project. Oral and written qualifying exams were next (failure relegated the student to a Master’s degree program), and finally three-four years of benchwork (we were all jealous of candidates in the humanities, who could “work from home” or spend hours in the library, rather than sleepless all-nighters in the lab).

And, yes, I do remember the anxiety—will I get scooped by a competing lab? Are my hypotheses valid? What happens if my advisor quits/moves/is killed in a car wreck?

Fast forward thirty years, and a post-doc, medical school, medical residency, and two Fellowships later. I am now a clinician at an academic medical center.

I see patients, attend conferences, and try to keep up with the latest clinical findings. But I am no longer working in a lab doing bench research. When folks see the “MD, PhD” moniker on my badge, they ask me about my research. When I tell them that I am a clinician, they assume that I am no longer “using my PhD.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Perhaps it took a few decades of perspective to realize that the value of a graduate education is to train the mind. To teach one how to think and to approach a problem. During grad school, my committee members taught me the value of knowing how to answer a question in the lab—using the latest technology in innovative and creative ways. But they also showed me that true genius is knowing what questions to ask.

I learned to love basic science and to appreciate the genius behind great experiments. I fondly remember the day that I read a paper by David Baltimore (Nobel-prize winning biologist) and shook with excitement when I actually understood the elegance and beauty of the experimental design. His genius was revealed to me, and, like a neophyte artist finally appreciating a Van Gogh masterpiece, I lamented the fact that I would never reach that stature.

I am now many years removed from my grad training. And, yes, I have not kept up with the literature in my field as I used to, so I’m a bit removed. But this distance has given me some perspective. Being able to focus on one area—one topic—is a learning experience unto itself. But the “life lessons” and thoughtful rigor learned from such an endeavor transcend knowledge in one area, and are applicable to all aspects of your life.

Not using my graduate degree? I cannot recall a day since then that I have not.

Author Bio: Dr Randy Horwitz, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. He serves as the Medical Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and teaches medical students and see patients at the University Medical Center.