I am joining a PhD program in mathematics in a few months. But I am having a hard time explaining what a PhD is to my parents! They ask: Why is it not enough to complete a PhD just for the sake of completing it? How can I come up with something not known to anyone?

My attempts at explaining go in vain and are often met with ridiculous counterexamples (many universities in India grant PhD in around two years for little original work, which is a major source of their counterexamples!)

Could you please suggest ways in which I may properly communicate these things to my parents? It would be great if you could suggest articles that explain what a PhD in science (mathematics) is all about. I can share them with my parents.

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    You are ready to embark on a 'PhD in Mathematics'. Why are you doing so i.e. what motivated you to join that PhD program? May 1 at 9:21
  • In which country will you be doing the PhD ?
    – Dawn
    May 1 at 15:08
  • @Dawn I’ll be doing it in Spain. May 1 at 15:43
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    The obvious counter to the counterexamples would be a proper analogy. Find something they are proud of and mock it equally. If they have an expensive car, tell them you can find a guy who can glue a BMW-badge to an auto rickshaw for a tenth of the price. If they climbed a famous mountain on a holiday, ask them why they did not just walk up some small hill next to wherever you live, and so on. If they tell you that this is not the same, tell them that this is the point and that no one who actually works in the field sees those degrees as a real PhDs, but only as a waste of time and money.
    – mlk
    May 1 at 19:21
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    This doesn't exactly answer all of these questions, but you can send them this: matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures May 2 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


This is something that many of us face: it is hard to explain a PhD to somebody who does not have much or any experience with academia or higher education. Even this year, as I also leave and graduate college to enter a PhD in mathematics in the Fall, I've received a lot of confusion from friends and family regarding the program. I've been asked "how much debt are you going into for this?" (response: none), "what jobs can you get with a PhD?" and "are you going into more schooling because you couldn't get a job in the real world?"

(The following advice assumes that you plan to enter an academic career).

The best counter to any doubts that people have about academia is to talk about a PhD like it's a job. Say, first and foremost, that you are a paid researcher hired by the university, and that although your primary responsibility is research, you will also have to teach, and will probably take a few classes just to get up to speed with some advanced material. Second, explain that a job in academia is both desireable (as in: pays well eventually, is a legitimate career choice, and has many benefits that no office job has, including intellectual freedom) and very hard to get (as in: a lot of people want it and most people fail to get it and ultimately enter industry as a direct result). The latter point is necessary because many people---even those who have gone to college---think that being a professor is easy, perhaps with the old adage in mind: "If you can't do, then teach." Third, just be honest: "my dream is to be an academic; a PhD is the only way to continue to work in research in a university and become a professor; it is hard to become a professor, so realistically, I have X and Y backup options, and the PhD may make me more employable for those options, but that is not its primary purpose."

  • Thanks for the answer. I have already implemented your first advice! Seems like the communication gap between a scientist and the general public begins right from the PhD level! May 2 at 9:15
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    @DimensionEntangled: I can assure that, at least in some fields, it begins much (really much, much) earlier than at the PhD level. May 2 at 9:30

One way of looking at a Ph.D. is that it is being an apprentice within the field of research. There is a high level of skill to research that you cannot read in books, which is why the best way to learn it is to follow an experienced Master (your advisor) for a number of years, before you are truly ready to enter the field of independent research. Very much the same for medical doctors. They do not start having patients on their own as soon as they are out of medical school. They need to go through a number of years in training jobs, where they are monitored and guided by seniors.

  • This! An apprenticeship is a very good analogy for a PhD course. You can't get a job as an academic without having been apprenticed, and a first degree is in this context nothing more than the entry qualification for the apprenticeship. May 3 at 16:31
  • Nonsense. Apprentices are true novices. PhDs already have an honours primary degree and must be seen as colleagues by supervisors. They are expected to select and devise the treatment for their own topic. Supervisor is just a sounding board and help with arranging experimental facilities, literature scanning, etc.
    – Trunk
    May 5 at 9:52
  • I think there are large differences between academic fields, when it comes to how ready one is to work independently by the end of a master's degree program. Certainly when it comes to field work. Also, it is not meant to belittle Ph.D-students to liken them to apprentices. A student-advisor relationship can never be a relationship between two equals. That, however, does not in any way mean that you should not respect the student as a person and as a (junior) colleague. May 5 at 14:10

Forget your parents for the moment.

The person needing an understanding of what a PhD is (or should be, since so many "PhD" programmes today have corrupted the essence of it) is you yourself.

Below this there is the formal definition but let's just discuss what the essential human endeavour is first as that is what people reference their work to.

A PhD is research project on a topic you choose yourself and pursue essentially unassisted and "your own way" - i.e. using your own motivations, ideas, investigative approaches, evaluations and conclusions. While a supervisor is assigned to your programme, their contribution is more to provide a sounding board to you as you progress, discuss your findings and guard against work unlikely to be productive. While a good supervisor is often regarded as at least 60% of an adequate PhD submission, they will make a smaller contribution to a really good PhD - here the additional merit will come from your own hard work and your good fortune in topic choice and/or treatments applied by you.

The most important word in the above is the word motivations - the reasons you do the programme in the first place and hopefully the same reasons you stick with it as disappointments sap your morale.

You ask: Why not complete a PhD just for the sake of completing it ?.

If I understand this right, you see a PhD as nothing more than a mental test over 3 years with a qualification to teach or lead research at the end of it. While some PhD candidates do this and usually do a decent job of it, they seldom stay in research as it was never an end in itself. They often get well-enough paid jobs in the same sector or change to other sectors that recruit high academic achievers from all areas, e.g. managers in some industry, government administration, management consultants, MBA, top law schools, etc. If this is the high water mark of your motivation to do a PhD, then I agree with your parents that it is a poor use of time. But I don't think - and certainly hope - that this is why you are doing a PhD.

A better motivation would be to use the PhD as a starting point for a career in innovative industry, research and/or teaching in the same subject area. I think that all these types of careers - including research management at a later stage of your career - are all worthy justifications for entering a PhD programme. In fact, you would have little chance of getting a proper research job today without a PhD.

I can't say I can reference any articles that I find convincing. Of course, I know quite a few people whose career worked out as it should after their PhD in industry, government lab research and academia. But these are not people who want to be public poster examples for your parents ! Ask your professors if they know some past PhDs whose careers have gone as they should (or better) and refer to these talking to your folks.


A PhD is a supervised research project done by an individual into an as-yet unanswered question in some subject area, viz. mathematics in your case. The research project must be:

  • Original and independent work - no "my supervisor suggested", etc although supervisor's constructive criticism and assistance with organization of work is allowed

  • Structured effectively - i.e. adequate work done investigating previous work on or around this topic, selection of potential approaches to the questions raised, evaluation of results obtained, conclusions drawn, etc

  • Adequately substantial to be regarded as a worthy addition to the field of knowledge on this topic

  • Defended in oral examination by an external academic well-versed in this area of research

  • Deemed worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal for that field of study, e.g. accepted for publication at some future point by he journal in question.

  • ‘’ You ask: Why not complete a PhD just for the sake of completing it ?” Sorry for the confusion. This is a question that my parents ask; not me! Nonetheless you answer is helpful. Thanks! May 3 at 4:45
  • But you don't want to complete it ? Now you've got me confused.
    – Trunk
    May 3 at 11:23
  • I have made a small edit to my question. I hope it is clears the confusion. May 3 at 12:26
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    Best thing is to get a professor about the same age as them to explain all this to your parents: why you don't want your education to stop now like most of your age-group, why this is a good thing for your future earning power, your security and your general happiness. It would be wise for the professor to also explain that your PhD programme will be funded through the university and supplemented by work within the department. So you will not be a burden to them during this period. Mention the student health insurance arrangements. Your post-PhD your earnings will overtake your peers'.
    – Trunk
    May 4 at 23:36
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    @Dimension Entangled It's an intergenerational communication problem, I feel. So it's better to factor out the age-gap and the fact that it's their own child here. The professor may say the same things that you have been saying but coming from a person of their own age the message should get a better hearing.
    – Trunk
    May 5 at 16:19

Wait, isn't it a cultural thing that people in some countries respect doctors much more than they probably should? If it's your case, than it simple: it's a doctor, but in math.

Another idea is to say that you are getting an advanced university qualification (that makes you more suitable for a research career, by the way), that's basically worth at least the same than the same time spent at a commercial company. So, if the concern is that you won't find a job with that fancy title, ensure your parents that it's not the case and it's the time well spent. And since it seems that you are getting a position, it's not some kind of an extremely underpaid practicum. So, you actually start earning some money with your head.

A yet another issue about a PhD, coupled with being a better researcher, is that it's the beginning of a track to become a professor.

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