Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Tea Pot PhD in Arts vs Engineering

On one of my many trips to MONA, I was introduced to the term "Tea Pot PhD" by several pedagogy researchers travelling to the museum. They hold PhD's in humanities and the tea pot PhD is defined as one in which someone makes something apparently trivial (from a modern day mass-manufacturing perspective), say a tea pot and expounds in detail regarding the artistic and technical processes involved in making it in the body of their thesis. The term is used in a derogatory sense implying lack of originality and critical thinking. Such an approach is considered a short-cut to being awarded a doctorate.

As an engineering PhD student, the tea-pot PhD sounded like one of the most difficult sort of PhD's to undertake. As I have seen numerous PhD candiadates take the long arduous road towards a practical application oriented PhD as opposed to a complex numerical/analytical modelling based solution where they churn out bits of Matlab or Python code - which ever is the flavour du jour. The arrival of rare components such as materials for a Terahertz oscillator, dielectric for a special patch antenna or a bunch of antennas and digitiser cards for a Noise MIMO radar can hold up progress for years. In my particular case I had significantly alter my research path since the Single pass Quad-pol airborne L-band interferometric radar I proposed to work with did not materialise, and eventually the small company I was working for had a sad demise.

Performing field work, coordinating satellite data takes and finally closing the loop using theory and experimental validation takes a quite a bit of effort. This can be compared to preparing and pouring tea. As opposed to designing the teapot/radar instrument itself. I am surprised that fine arts which are supposed to encourage creativity and aesthetics is biased against the creative process itself and focuses on the critical aspects instead. Engineering is all about creating working systems and transitioning pure science to more applied aspects, creating products which are of real use to the society. Admitted a lot of the engineering I indulge in is like playing with early days of X-ray, we get a different view of the planet, but we haven't quite worked out how to diagonise the fractures using the imagery. This does not automatically imply that the building such systems is pointless.

After all I am only doing a PhD in - "watching grass grow from space using flash photography with microwave ovens".

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”
Brendan Behan

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