Academia vs. karate.

by Ryan Gregory, April 17th, 2012

In the particular martial art that I study (Meibukan Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate), the ranks are as follows: White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Brown, Brown with black stripe, Black. The coloured belts are known as “kyu” belts, and are ranked in reverse order (i.e., the 1st kyu is the highest). Black belts are “dan” ranks, of which there are 10 (Shodan, Nidan, Sandan, etc). Dan ranks are also referred to as “degrees”. Thus, a person who holds a “Sandan” is a “third dan” or a “third degree black belt”.

You may recall that many years ago, I held the rank of brown belt, which was considered “1st kyu” in my previous style (Jundokan Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate). I never achieved a dan rank because I stopped training at that point.  The main reason, as I have discussed previously, was that I felt that I had to focus on my academic studies and that I would not be able to dedicate the kind of training necessary to live up to a dan rank.  I don’t regret the decision, though I am certainly glad to be back in the dojo after all these years.

Some readers may be wondering what exactly is involved in pursuing an academic career.  

Undergraduate — Bachelor’s degree (white to green belt)

The first step is to attend university as an undergraduate.  I studied at McMaster University for four years to earn my Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree.  At McMaster, everyone in science had the same basic set of courses in first year (chemistry, biology, physics, calculus, etc.) and then would choose a major for second year.  I ultimately ended up in the Honours Biology program, where I focused on topics like physiology, animal behaviour, evolution, and ecology.

As part of the Honours Biology program, we had to complete a senior thesis in which we conducted an independent research project.  I did mine under the supervision of Dr. Chris Wood, in which I investigated trade-offs between growth, dominance, and swimming performance in rainbow trout. (I’ve written about it in detail here).  However, for the most part undergraduate training involves a lot of courses in the standard lecture format and focuses on learning basic concepts.

For this reason, I would say that having an undergraduate degree is roughly equivalent to earning the rank of green belt.  You know some stuff, but you’ve really just gotten a basic introduction.

Master’s degree (blue to brown belt)

Graduate school is about as different from undergraduate as undergraduate is from high school.  In Canada, students who continue in their studies generally complete a master’s degree (MSc) after their BSc. In this case, there are only a few courses and these tend to be very small (10 students or so) and are much more about discussing and debating topics rather than learning basic content. The main thrust of an MSc degree is conducting original research under the supervision of an advisor.  The advisor-student relationship is a bit like an apprenticeship or perhaps what traditional karate training was like, with one Sensei and a handful of full-time students.

The typical time taken to complete a master’s degree is about two years.  It culminates in writing a thesis and defending it in a public defence in which your advisor and several other professors attempt to pick it apart.  I would say that getting your MSc is similar to earning a brown belt. Now you have some exposure to the “real deal” in science and you have shown that you can follow a (hopefully publishable) study through from idea to analysis.  The analogy breaks down a bit, though, because sometimes a student will upgrade to a PhD program after a year without completing the MSc.  This is what I did.

PhD student / PhD candidate (brown belt with black stripe)

Depending on the school, there may not be any course requirements at the PhD level. Instead almost all of the emphasis is on completing (publishable) research. It’s still done under the guidance of an advisor,  but the expectations for PhD-level research are significantly higher than for an MSc and more independent thought is required.

After the first year, a PhD student begins studying for the dreaded “qualifying exam” or “comprehensive exam” or “comps”.  Basically, you are given a reading list (which might include a couple of textbooks) and have several months to study before spending several hours being grilled by five professors. I have heard of many students who decided not to pursue a PhD because they did not want to go through this exam.  That’s rather extreme, but let me tell you, comps are not fun.

The good news is that once you get through the qualifying exam, you become a “PhD Candidate” and your only major task for the rest of your program is to do your research. At this point, you have reached the level of a brown belt with a black stripe. The next major “grading” will be your PhD defence.

PhD  (1st degree black belt)

As with the MSc, the PhD concludes with the writing of a thesis detailing the research that you did.  Unlike a scientific paper, which is usually about 20-30 pages in manuscript form, a PhD thesis is often hundreds of pages.  (Mine is here, if you’re curious).  This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that it represents four or five years of work.

PhD” stands for philosophiae doctor or Doctor of Philosophy; literally, “doctor” means “teacher” and “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”). A PhD is the first time that you get letters in front of your name (and not just after, as with BSc and MSc), when your title becomes “Doctor”. (You are not “a doctor” [noun], though, as that refers to medical doctors only).

Including undergraduate and a PhD program without an MSc, it took me 9 years to complete my PhD.  I would say that graduating with a PhD is roughly the academic equivalent to earning a 1st degree black belt.  You definitely know a lot and you have proven yourself to be capable, but really it’s just the beginning.

Postdoctoral Fellowship (2nd degree black belt)

Most people who complete a PhD with the intention of remaining in academia will complete a postdoctoral fellowship (“post-doc” or “PDF”) under the supervision of an advisor at a different institution from where they completed their degrees.  At this stage, you have a PhD and the title “Dr.”, but you do not yet have your own lab or a permanent position. The PDF is a time to focus entirely on one’s research, to publish more papers, and to establish oneself in the hope of landing a faculty job.  The post-doc stage can last for several years. In my case, I worked for a year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and then for a year at the Natural History Museum in London, UK.

Following our karate analogy, completing a post-doc (which can last up to several years) would be akin to being promoted to 2nd degree black belt.

Assistant Professor (3rd degree black belt)

If you are fortunate enough to land a highly coveted faculty position at a university, you will begin as an “Assistant Professor”.  The name is a bit misleading, though, because you are not actually anyone’s assistant. Rather, this is just the junior faculty rank and most of the basic duties are the same as for more senior colleagues.

Assistant Professors are not tenured, but they usually are “tenure-track”.  The main objective at this level is to establish both an independent research program (i.e., obtaining grants, supervising graduate students, publishing papers) and a teaching portfolio (i.e., developing and delivering undergraduate and graduate courses).

The Assistant Professor stage is easily the most stressful of all the ones covered so far.  For one thing, you are now expected to teach, supervise students, write grant applications, and serve on committees, and for the most part you have minimal experience with all of these.  Moreover, the pressure to gain tenure can be pretty intense, especially with the need to balance teaching, research, and service.  The first time I taught a course, I quite literally survived on 2 hours sleep per night for several months.  I had a few all-nighters in my undergraduate and graduate days, but nothing even close to what it was like when I was a new faculty member.

Becoming an Assistant Professor is on par with receiving a 3rd degree black belt and opening one’s own dojo.  There are many parallels between running a lab and running a small business, and the early years of both can be particularly challenging.

Associate Professor and tenure (4th degree black belt)

Eventually, you figure out how to develop courses, how to run a lab group, how to get grants, and how to keep on top of the dozens of commitments and responsibilities that you have at any given time as a faculty member.  After a few years, you should have established a productive research program, have taught several courses, and have served on various administrative committees.  The workload doesn’t get any lighter (quite the opposite), but you get better at managing it.

Junior faculty are evaluated by a committee of colleagues each year.  After the 6th year at the latest, an Assistant Professor will be reviewed based on his or her performance to date and considered for tenure. If successful, he or she will receive tenure and a promotion to Associate Professor. If unsuccessful, his or her position will be terminated.  Assistant Professors are allowed to apply once for early consideration and if they are not successful then, they will be considered again at the 6-year mark.  Most people will apply in year 5, since there is nothing to lose by going for it at that point. I happened to apply in year 4 and was successful, and I have been an Associate Professor for about 2 years now.

Promotion to Associate Professor is a major step in one’s academic career, and is probably more than just receiving a 4th degree black belt because of the added component of being awarded tenure.  Close enough for our imperfect analogy, though.

Full Professor (5th degree black belt)

There is one additional rank among faculty, namely “Professor” or “Full Professor”.  In general, Associate Professors will apply to be promoted to Professor several years after their first promotion, once they have clearly established a very strong record in research, teaching, and service.  Unlike the promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor, this one is not necessary to remain in the job and there is no specific time line for when one applies for it nor any limit to the number of times one can apply.

The Professor rank is more like an acknowledgement of continued contributions and accomplishment rather than passing a specific test.  For that reason, I would liken it to being awarded a 5th degree black belt.

So, there you have it.  I started training in karate in the first year of my undergraduate program and stopped around the beginning of my fourth year.  After that, I completed five years in a PhD, two years as a post-doc, four years as an Assistant Professor, and have been an Associate Professor for the past two years.

And now, at last, I also am back in the gi.



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[…] s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })();TweetHere is another interesting parallel between academia and the martial arts (both links courtesy of Sensei Kao Chao). These tell more or […]

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