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How Original is your PhD?

Today, I am hosting Jephtah Lorch as a guest author. A former CEO, Jephtah Lorch managed technology companies, led growth, expansions and turnarounds. His work with people, scientists and engineers stressed creativity, originality and the need for constant growth and change. Mr. Lorch is a strategist, developed successful strategies for science based companies as well as major Homeland Security projects worldwide. He published the book Business is Decisions, Success is Intuition whose principles are applicable throughout our lives in personal, professional, government and organizations. Currently Mr. Lorch is the CEO of Navitas – a strategy and mentoring consultancy.

During one’s PhD research and studies the candidate is expected to make a significant original contribution to knowledge under the supervision of her or his academic supervisors. To make such contribution the candidate has to find a ‘hatch’ to originality which is driven by thought patterns – ours, our supervisors’ and the environment we grow and operate in.

The opportunity to make a significant contribution differs by subject matter yet all share a common denominator: human decisions. For breakthroughs researchers need to be perceptive, open their minds to the seemingly impossible, leverage their past knowledge but not let themselves be limited by it, accept irregularities as opportunities, not threats.

Our decisions are biased by our personality, ego, loves, determination, daring, fears, education, knowledge, life experience, comfort zones and other such factors that together form our individual gut feeling. Together with intuition these, and not only, navigate some of our most strategic decisions, the unmeasurable, intangible qualitative part of our decision making that leads us to choose research fields, a research approach or methodology, the breadth of variables to be included in our research and so on. These soft decisions, like ‘it doesn’t feel right’, are influenced by our biases, our acceptance of the risk to fail, the courage to break away from glass ceilings imposed by current knowledge and ones’ determination to make that significant original contribution to knowledge.

Originality is also supported by a certain level of coincidence and chaos that continuously challenges one’s thinking, exposes new patterns that do not fall in line with our original thought patterns. This happened to Wilhelm Roentgen discovering X-Rays, Henri Becquerel discovering Uranium’s natural radiation, Marie Curie discovering radioactivity, and many others. Originality is also about the curiosity and courage to pursue that disruptive idea in spite of the risk to fail, in spite of past teachings and of what our peers and seniors think of it – many of which would write off our new ideas.

The internal driving force is ourselves and one’s awareness to limiting biases, our eye for that crucial detail that challenges what we know and the determination to research it. The external driving force is normally our PhD mentor. If she or he are open minded and have egoless personalities, they will support your work without fear of having the student surpass the teacher and without limiting the scope of research to match the mentor’s boundaries.

Personal biases and soft skills make the difference before scientific or factual data does, because these steer our strategy as seen in the following historical examples.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th century Hungarian physician discovered that by washing hands before surgery with a chlorine based solution patient mortality is drastically reduced. Unable to provide a scientific explanation, the medical community rejected his conclusions and continued the then-known practices. Safe in their comfort zones none of the distinguished of Austro-Hungarian professors offered to research the phenomena which was later explained by Louis Pasteur.

A more recent example is that of 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate Prof. Dan Schechtman who discovered the Quasicrystals. After first publishing his findings in 1984 he was ridiculed and rejected by the scientific community led by Linus Pauling, a two times Nobel Laureate who refused to accept he was wrong. The head of Schechtmans’ research lab told him to “go back and read the textbook”, eventually asking Schechtman to leave the lab for bringing disgrace on the team. Schechtman suffered ten very hard years until Pauling’s death and the slow recognition that his work and results are correct and revolutionary. The rejection was not scientifically based but ego-biased.

In spite of its opposition to many new findings, the academic world is sometimes willing to acknowledge novelty like in the case of Albert Einstein. The Nobel Foundation scientists, due lack of worldly proof of the Theory of Relativity, decided to award Einstein the Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect – a much lesser discovery. Einstein’s original thinking was based on Newton’s and we can assume someone will rely on Einstein’s work bringing physics to new heights. Later on Einstein himself opposed Quantum Theory just like his peers opposed Relativity.

Research is as creative as the horizons one chooses to explore and past conventions she or he are willing to challenge. The challenge is to accept that past knowledge is not all knowledge, that originality is about breaking away from those tracks we were put on and, about awareness to human biases. Improve originality by first understanding what drives the qualitative aspects of your decision making, the intangibles driving your decisions as well as testing your courage to stand for what you believe is right.

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