The Open-Source P.h.D.
I’ve been pulling together materials for something I’ve started to think of as a “personal Ph.D.” The way I see it, there are three big components to any Ph.D. program:
- Education, including the ability to produce independent research
- Credentials, usually in the form of peer-reviewed papers and a degree from an accredited institution
- Networks, like advisors, peers, and students
A P.h.D. program bundles these in a convenient package, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on producing them. For each component I just listed, there is an open-source alternative:
The internet has made learning abundant and cheap.
Open-sourced university classes:
- MIT Open Courseware
- Harvard Open Learning
- Stanford Online
- Open Yale
- Princeton Online
- Class Central
- Free Code Camp
A degree is the most widely recognized way to signal expertise, but it’s not the only path. I like the idea of working in public because it incentivizes the creation of good work, rather than just a finished product. Without a degree to fall back on, you’ll be judged on the quality of your work instead of the name of the institution attached.
Some examples of public credentials I come back to:
- Self-published essay (e.g., Principles of Effective Research by Michael Nielsen)
- Sponsored report (e.g., Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure by Nadia Eghbal)
- Proof-of-revenue (e.g., Make something people want and sell it)
- Endorsement (e.g., Emergent Ventures Fellowship)
Some of the most valuable networks today exist outside of academic institutions.
- Newsletter Subscribers (👋 hi, everyone!)
- Y Combinator
- On Deck Fellowship
- Thiel Fellowship
- Emergent Ventures
The trick is to find and collaborate with amateur experts, rather than simply joining an established institution. In addition to finding highly ambitious peers, all of the networks above benefit from the guidance of an expert mentor.
In Nadia’s post “Reimagining the P.h.D.” she outlines her priorities during her time as an independent researcher:
- Write your own curriculum
- Stay close to your subject
- Work in public
- Build your own support network
- Find ways to hold yourself accountable
- Create artifacts that work for your audience
- Resist the temptation to play “research dress-up”
Dave Klaing enumerates the “key ingredients” of a P.h.D.:
- A broad understanding of the history and methods of your discipline, and a deep, constantly renewing understanding of a specialty within that discipline.
- Several peer-reviewed publications.
- Frequent feedback from an expert mentor over a period of several years.
- Extensive experience teaching and evaluating beginners.
- Completion and publication of a large research project that makes an original contribution.
I’m convinced that an independent path is possible. Not easy, but possible. If you know of anyone who has followed an untraditional path for education I would love to meet them.
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