The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is.

It's hard to describe it in words.

So, I use pictures.

Read below for the illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

Update: Now available in print.

Update: Slides and translations available.

Update: Want to reproduce or modify this guide on your site? Please do, but read the brief requirements in the Creative Commons license below.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:

A master's degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you're at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

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License: Creative Commons

I've received hundreds of requests to reproduce this work, and I'm happy to grant them all. I only ask that you attribute the original work to me (Matt Might) and link back to this page in your reproduction:

as The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

When you attribute, please also link my name, Matt Might, to:

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

That means you can share, copy, modify and reproduce this work as long as you attribute the original work to me and link back to it as outlined above.

However, you may not sell this work, or use it for commercial purposes. You may only distribute it free of charge. If you're not sure whether your use is a "commercial purpose," please send me an email.

Please also drop me an email with a link to your site.

If you use it in a presentation, I'd love to hear feedback.


Please let me know if you translate this post into another language.

Get it in print; fund students; save lives

By request, a print version of The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. is on sale.

Click here to preview or buy it.

Any and all proceeds will fund graduate students whose work may impact the discovery, diagnosis or treatment of genetic disorders.

It is available at $6.50 for a limited time thanks to Hewlett-Packard's high-quality on-demand publishing service, MagCloud.

It's sixteen pages, saddle-stitch bound and in full color.

It's a good gift for new students, the recently defended and relatives thereof.

Why genetics research?

If you zoom in on the boundary of human knowledge in the direction of genetics, there's something just outside humanity's reach:

My wife and I chose to start funding these graduate students after we learned that our son has a rare, fatal genetic disorder.

It may be too late for my son, but it's not too late for other children.

Even one child suffering is one child too many.

The only way to end this kind of suffering is science.

And, the best way to do science is through graduate students. is powered by linode.