Why would one pursue an Special Individual Ph.D. degree? (What follows is my personal observation, which may not reflect the views of others.)

When I decided to return to school for my undergraduate degree, seven years after departing college for the "real world", I had no notion of how the University divided knowledge into disciplines. I didn't care that some things were "not my department". I did know that I wanted to learn about how things worked, and I entered Mechanical Engineering. Most of the topics that caught my interest were in that department. I also took classes in organic and physical chemistry and atmospheric science because they were interesting, logical outgrowths of some of the other material I studied.

A few years later, I found myself in graduate school, studying Combustion. It was a perfect place to merge study in chemistry, heat transfer, and thermodynamics, all of which I really enjoyed. I found myself puzzled, though, by some of the disciplinary boundaries. I met people whose funding was based on reducing emissions from combustion, yet their eyes would glaze over when they heard a talk about air quality. While these researchers produced excellent results by focusing on their specialty, I was not satisfied. I wanted to know about the entire lifetime of combustion products, which begin in the heart of the flame, proceed through the tailpipe (or exhaust stack), waft into the atmosphere, interact with other chemicals or with solar radiation, and eventually get changed into another chemical or get stuck on raindrops, the earth, trees, lungs... Sound like fun?

I thought that drawing a line where the exhaust stack ended was akin to the Canadian border along Interstate 5. There are good administrative reasons to have the border, many people have agreed on it, and one can spend a long time waiting in line. But if one focuses on the border, or on staying on one side of it, one might miss the fact that it is all one piece of land with the same ecological needs. Yes, we need specialists; we need many of them. But we also need people whose job requires that they look at the big picture. I wanted to be one of those people.

It is possible to become a "big picture person" by getting a traditional Ph.D. A student is free to take classes in other disciplines, as long as the requirements of the Ph.D. department are also met. A student is free to include consideration of other disciplines in his or her dissertation, as long as the dissertation is acceptable to the Ph.D. department. In other words, the student can branch out as an extracurricular activity.

Think about your own list of personal desires, which probably includes a few items that are tangentially relevant to your work or studies. "Learn French" might be on that list, or "get a pilot's license". How long have you wanted to do those things? Do you see yourself doing them in the near future, or is it more likely that, governed by necessity, you will put them off for another year? I felt that way about my ability to branch out from a traditional Ph.D. My involvement in the interdisciplinary would be confined to a couple of classes and some lip service.

I needed a course of action that would require me to venture into other subjects. I wanted to put the merging of disciplines on the "must-do" list, not the "want-to-do" list. The interdisciplinary Ph.D. program was a way to do that. In a world of borders, it provides a way to cut across the grain. It puts the big picture on the to-do list. It's not an easy route, but I believe it is worth it. Until the day comes when any (graduate) class counts toward a student's Ph.D. and portions of the qualifying exam in one department are credited in another department, I believe we need this program to allow, and encourage, students to go where tradition does not dictate.

Oh, and about that pilot's license-- go for it. Life is short.

Written: 3 October 1998

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