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Post-graduate studies: Myths and motivations

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avatar Post-graduate studies: Myths and motivations
January 05, 2009 01:27PM
This is a talk that my supervisor did a while back, I think its still relevant, a very good read:

Post-graduate studies: Myths and motivations in 2001
Department of Computer Science, University of Pretoria, Pretoria 0002
Derrick G Kourie

In many of the social sciences, myths are seen as belief systems that characterize social groupings, both ancient and modern. They constitute the mental infrastructure used by groups to explain phenomena and to guide and motivate actions. In each age these myths are challenged and reformulated in an attempt to more clearly express the truths that they embed. It was against this background that I chose to talk about the myths that motivate post-graduate studies when I was invited to address this conference way back in 1989.

My point of departure was that there are a number of myths which surround the idea of postgraduate studies; that people do post-graduate studies on the basis of some selection of these myths; that they find their motivations in these myths; and that they are sometimes - even frequently - demotivated because of a vague perception of the inadequacy or falsity embedded in others. By examining the myths that seemed prevalent at the time, I hoped to come closer to the truth about the desirability of postgraduate studies.

I regard it as a huge honour to be invited yet again to address this conference, albeit 12 years later. Since we live in a time when ‘reuse’ is strongly advocated, I was naturally inclined to reuse the talk given in 1989, taking the risk that none of you were present at the time. I have made very slight adaptations to that talk to more closely match the mood in 2001. However, in re-reading the 1989 talk, I am struck by the fact that our set of myths has hardly shifted. As a result, very little adaptation seemed necessary. Note that you will probably not hold to each myth that I enunciate. That is not the point. Rather, the mere fact that some of these myths are still held to be true by some people may, to a lesser or greater extent, be a demotivating influence on you.

1. The wealth/power myth
The first myth about post-graduate studies is that it will lead to greater wealth and power. Perhaps more than any other age, ours is driven by a quest for riches and power. Someone once remarked that it is no coincidence that, while the most impressive buildings of the middle ages were cathedrals dedicated to the glory of God, the most impressive structures of the present age tend to be head-offices of financial institutions. The contemporary obsession with power to be derived from material possessions hardly bears further comment. Successful post-graduate studies will, you may vaguely feel, better equip you to obtain entrée to this wonderland of trinkets and baubles that are supposed to give you power.

If you imagine that you are not driven to some extent by the myth of postgraduate wealth and power, then consider for a moment whether you would be here today if you thought the opposite: that post-graduate studies would put you low down on the social scale. This is not so far-fetched: academics were in such a position in communist China in the sixties and seventies. Can you really claim that you
would still insist on postgraduate studies if this were to be the case in contemporary South Africa?

Whatever your answer, the wealth-myth, like any good myth, contains some element of truth. An MSc or PhD may indeed push you slightly higher up the salary scale. In very rare cases it might lead to a patent or product that makes you wealthy. However, if you are really wealth-driven, then you are following the wrong path. You would probably be better off by simply becoming a consultant for some
popular software product. What ultimately determines wealth, apart from the isolated instances of luck or inheritance, is an absolute devotion to the wealth-cause. Some of you may indeed become very wealthy, but if you do, the chances are that your post-graduate qualifications will at best play a minor role.

The true motivator here is a belief that your studies will provide greater security. This perception is largely true. There will always be companies, locally and overseas, who are eager and proud to employ post-graduates. The only proviso is that you do not price yourself out of the market. In this respect, you will always enjoy an advantage, albeit a small one, over others.

2. The studies-are-unnecessary myth
A second myth is one to which you most likely do not subscribe. It is the belief that studies are really not necessary. The myth is supported by the spectacular successes of people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others. In its extreme form, some might actually believe that IT studies are positively harmful. A
milder version that has emerged more strongly over the last decade claims that while a first degree has value, post-graduate studies are really quite irrelevant.

In a way, this milder version is more credible, and therefore the more pernicious. It is especially prevalent in certain sectors of the South African computer industry. Indeed, several larger IT companies in South Africa (I will resist the temptation to mention names) fall over one another to employ our
undergraduates but do not provide financial support for postgraduate studies.

Nevertheless, I do not think that we should devote much energy to rooting out the myth. It seems to be dying out naturally under the weight of hard evidence. Both locally and internationally,
increasing numbers of MSc graduates are to be found in the most successful IT companies. In the R&D divisions of multinational corporations it is almost passé for someone to have a PhD. And there is growing trend in the Europe to specifically aim recruitment at the MSc-equivalent level. Thus, while we
do not need postgraduates to address our country's more trivial IT requirements, we desperately need you if we are to be globally competitive. It is in your interests not to be demotivated by the myth. And it is in South Africa’s interests to keep your expertise here.

3. The it-is-easy myth
The next myth might influence a subset of the audience. It is the notion that post-graduate studies are really quite easy. Simply produce some mildly interesting or wildly esoteric piece of software and report
on it. An extreme example of this attitude was a physics post-graduate who had moved into computing, and had written what he considered to be a fairly smart CAD system. His request was that he be allowed to write up a description of the system and submit it for a PhD degree. He estimated that the exercise
would take him a few months!

This attitude is both misplaced and arrogant. It entirely misses the point of post-graduate studies – that it is an apprenticeship through which the candidate gains admission into a somewhat exclusive subculture. Academic research is not some spontaneous or casual undertaking. It involves immersing
oneself in the ethos and culture of the discipline. It builds on a thorough grounding in the entire spectrum of the various sub-disciplines related to the research area. It feeds upon contact with others in the field – contact through the literature and electronic media, through personal acquaintances, through
conferences of the present nature, and through supervision.

For a supervisor, there is nothing more frustrating than to be stuck with a student who believes he knows it all. There is a class of student who places boundaries on the amount of effort that he thinks
ought to apply; who seems to feel that it is all very easy and the supervisor is simply being an unreasonable perfectionist. This is not to discount the possibility of serious disagreement between student and supervisor, nor the possibility of poor supervision. My aim here is to discourage a facile
attitude towards your study.

For most of us in IT, what is especially difficult about academic research, is to express ourselves well in writing. My personal view is that good writing is an essential facet of the post-graduate exercise, but one that - sadly - tends to be under-emphasised. As a consequence, IT literature (even at the level of
a user manual) often borders on being incomprehensible, not because of profundity in content but because of the obscurity in the style of writing. I urge you to devote a major part of your effort to ensuring that the dissertation that you finally produce contains clear and crisp argumentation, that it is
well-structured and that it reflects your literary competence to the highest degree possible. This is not easy, although some may find it easier than others. Speaking personally, I know that I have to sweat blood in order to produce a good piece of writing. I know that it is only by being seriously and deeply
critical of what I have done that I can obtain some measure of success. But first efforts can be improved, and the right disposition of a post-graduate is a preparedness to spare no effort in order to write up one’s
work to the very best of one one’s ability.

4. The it-is-difficult myth
"So post-graduate studies are inordinately difficult. They are not for me," you may conclude. This is the next myth to be addressed.

Yes, it is difficult. No, it is not beyond the reach of all but the most gifted. I cannot say whether each and every one of you is capable of successful post-graduate work. That is a matter between yourself and your supervisor. However, I submit that success depends not only on intelligence and ability. I am almost tempted to consider these matters to be of secondary importance. Instead, two
factors are vital: motivation and perseverance, the former being the father and mother to the latter. Given a reasonable level of intelligence, a high degree of motivation is almost a guarantee of successful postgraduate

Of course, it is also important that an appropriate topic should be chosen for your research. It should be one that interests you, one which suites your particular set of talents, and one that is not overly
ambitious. A good supervisor will give helpful guidance in respect of what is feasible and appropriate. With all the motivation and intelligence in the world, a poorly-chosen topic could render your postgraduate studies inordinately difficult.

5. The it-is-insignificant myth
This brings me to another myth. It is a common experience that as one gets into a project or a piece of writing, it seems to become less and less important, less inspiring, and indeed somewhat trivial and insignificant. The main sensation of many a PhD student, after reading for the last time the final draft of
his dissertation, is one of nausea and deep self-doubt. Many of us have a strong tendency to discount our work and achievements, to experience our efforts as phoney and to secretly fear that we will be exposed
as frauds. Some time ago, Time Magazine carried an article about this syndrome which, interestingly enough, appears to afflict about 70% of people that others would consider to be successful.

The cure for this crisis of confidence lies in developing a solid sense of realism. We need to be realistic in our expectations of our work and of its significance. If you set out with the expectation of
gaining the Turing Award for your dissertation, you have a fairly high chance of turning out something that you feel is insignificant. The problem lies less with your work than with your expectations. You need to develop a healthy sense of self-worth that is neither smug and complacent, nor abjectly selfdeprecating.
You need to give yourself what Claude Steiner calls "warm fuzzies". You need to be able say to yourself: “Even though the impact of my work on the world at large may be minuscule, I did it well.”

6. The self-confidence myth
Maybe you find this unnatural. Perhaps you are not used to giving yourself these positive strokes. Maybe part of the hidden agenda for your post-graduate studies is precisely to obtain the respect of others. This leads to the next myth on my list: that post-graduate studies will give me self-confidence.

Again, the myth has some truth. There are many who look up to and respect someone with postgraduate qualifications. And perhaps their adulation will make you feel good and more confident. But, as I have already suggested, there are others who are less awed. The point is, off course, that selfconfidence
and a sense of self-worth are complex psychological dispositions. To rely on externals such as a mere qualification to heal a damaged or underdeveloped sense of self-esteem would be a grave error that will soon lead to disappointment. We all lack self-confidence to a lesser or greater extent. It is simply inappropriate to rely on the wrong mechanism to bolster it.

7. The testimony-of-intelligence myth
Within the nexus of myths on the difficulty or ease of post-graduate study, of its insignificance or itspotential to induce self-confidence, lies yet another related myth: that successful post-graduate studies will bear testimony to my general intelligence.

When a university awards a post-graduate degree, it conveys to the world that this particular person has acquired a certain competence in a certain limited domain. The higher the degree, the narrower is the domain of competence. This apparent truism seems to escape some, whose attitude suggests the very reverse - namely that the higher my qualification, the more competent I am across a
vast spectrum of fields: politics, religion, child-rearing, and all sorts of other weird and wonderful areas of specialisation. Because I am schooled in the scientific method, I know all about truths that relate to
the human mind. Because I know about economics, I am unquestionably competent to speak about political realities, etc.

This hubris is intolerable. Of course academic study will sharpen and hone your mind and critical senses, but it will do so in a specific sort of way - a way that is conditioned by the methodology of your discipline. If you enter the terrain of another, then you run the risk of appearing naive at precisely those points at which you thought yourself to be clever.

At any rate, one highly desirable effect of post-graduate studies on the thoughtful mind is to become increasingly aware of the vast scope of knowledge that exists outside of, and independently of oneself; to realise how relatively ignorant one is, rather than to be impressed by ones own breadth and depth of knowledge. If your studies have not had this humbling effect on you, I suggest that you take time to reflect upon the matter.

8. The theoretical and practical myths
Let us consider together two myths that are in apparent opposition to one another. The first claims that post-graduate work should be theoretical; the other, that it should be practical.

The caricatured notion of theoretical work is that it has no bearing on reality, that it involves amorass of symbols and theorems and notation which do not, by any stretch of the imagination, have any bearing on any real problem either now or in the future. Conversely, the facile and extreme view of practical work is that it involves direct mechanistic application of existing theory to some problem area in a way that neither requires any particular skill nor demands any measure of intellectual prowess. I would personally be uneasy about post-graduate studies that reflect either of these extremes.

From the theoretician, I would expect as a minimum, that he draws attention to areas of potential application for the theory that he has developed - even though the potential for application be highly tenuous, and the discussion ever so brief. On the other hand, I would expect the practitioner to tease out and discuss generic principles that flow from her application. In a certain sense, I would expect the practitioner to justify her work as being academically worthy in greater detail than the theoretician, but I do not think that the theoreticians should be allowed to play the dilettante mathematician or philosopher without ever touching base.

The ideal position is, in my own view, the one in which theory is derived from a practical problem. Particularly in the South African context, I believe that we cannot afford the luxury of unrestrained theoretical research when our country cries out for practical solutions to pressing problems. Such theoretical research has its place, but should be the exception, not the norm. Someone once indicated 1::7 as a desirable ratio of theoretical to practical researchers. This seems to me to be a roughly acceptable figure, if applied to South African IT as a whole. Nevertheless, these matters are controversial, and I do not think that the debate has been closed.

9. The magnum opus myth
Yet another myth prevailing amongst a significant number of post-graduates is the idea that this particular thesis is going to be my magnum opus. Post-graduates are, per definition, the cream of the crop of undergraduate students produced in the country. They are generally highly motivated, enthusiastic, and ambitious. As a result they sometimes aspire to produce not merely the best piece of work that they have done to date, but the best that they are ever likely to produce. Such an attitude is unrealistic. It imposes unnecessary stress on the student, saps energy that should be reserved for later work, and misinterprets the purpose of post-graduate studies.

In essence, the objective at MSc level is to demonstrate your potential for doing research. At PhD level, the objective is to provide final proof of this potential by actually making some original contribution to your discipline. These are tall orders, but they are all that are required at the respective levels. There is no need to add another level of requirements on top of these.

The magnum opus myth could be a subtle but significant demotivator. It may cause indefinite postponement of registration (I am not yet ready to write my magnum opus - I have not been able to find a topic worthy of being the subject of my magnum opus.) It may result in interminable delays in handing in work. (My magnum opus will simply have to be more profound than this.) Ultimately the student may
decide to throw the towel after months - even years - of painful work. (I simply do not have the time at this stage in my life to produce my magnum opus.)

It is difficult to gauge the acceptability of one's work. Like parenting, the student can merely make the best decisions that she is capable of at each stage of the project. Unlike parenting, she can usually go back and improve upon her previous efforts. However, one should be firmly guided by one’s supervisor, and should not iterate or expand upon work indefinitely at one’s own discretion.

10. The mediocrity-is-acceptable myth
Note carefully that what I have said should not be construed as a commendation of mediocrity. This is, in fact, the final myth that I shall deal with: that mediocrity is acceptable. Although akin to the it-is-easy myth, it is not quite the same. It manifests itself in shoddy workmanship, even in cases where the research results are praiseworthy. You should pay scrupulous attention to grammar and spelling, to correct citation methods, to careful explanation, to good structure and to high-quality technical production of the final work. Years after you have graduated you should be able to flip through the pages of your work with a sense of pride, and be in a position to say: "I did that well - I gave of my best."

I have regarded it as my brief that I should encourage you and renew your motivation for your studies. And the main drift of what I have been saying is to suggest that if your motivation derives from the wrong set of myths, it is liable to be diluted. I therefore urge you to reconsider why you are here today, and to purify your understanding of the value of what you have are undertaken.

The consequences of post-graduate study are a little intangible, but they are important. Your contribution counts. Our country desperately needs thinkers such as yourselves, for the solutions to many of its underlying problems lie more in the technological area than in the political one. Postgraduate qualifications are not the only road to success. They provide no such guarantee, neither at the
individual level, nor for the country as a whole. They are nevertheless a tried and tested means for shaping and sharpening good minds, in order to maximise their potential contribution in later life.

National MSc/PhD Conference, Pretoria, September 2001
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