But recently, these sound bites of science, also known as gravitational waves, were loud enough to grab the attention of the world.
This major breakthrough, fulfilling the last prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity 100 years ago, was published in Physical Review Letters in a report titled “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger”.
Detected for the first time on Sept 14 last year, the report confirmed the existence of the waves from this first observation of a binary black hole merger.
Investing in a doctoral programme is not a cheap affair, but PhD researchers can boost the country’s research capacity.
A few days after the news made headlines, there was another discovery out of this announcement making waves in a positive way and providing excitement back home.
In the full author list at the end of the report, the initials “H.N Isa” was of Hafizah Noor Isa, a Malaysian. Currently doing her PhD at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, Hafizah was among the 1,000 scientists acknowledged for this groundbreaking breakthrough.
Her involvement in this project is an example of the value of a doctoral education beyond pecuniary terms, which can be rather costly or lengthy.
For young scientists like her, it highlights the benefits of her doctoral experience which entailed acquiring specialised knowledge.
By coincidence, a few days later, the Higher Education Ministry announced scholarships for 9,010 students to further their studies in Master’s and PhD programmes under the MyBrain15 initiative with 7,410 students receiving scholarships for the MyMaster programme and 1,600 for the MyPhd programme.
This brings a glimmer of hope to many aspiring Malaysian scholars especially the new generation of young scientists.
Doctoral education, especially those that are scientifically cutting-edge, is significant where knowledge is the new “fuel” — the economic renewable to economic growth leading to a knowledge-based economy. PhD holders should be one of the main players behind the creation of this knowledge-based economic growth.
For this to take place, the system of the country and its platform for conducting long-term research must be well-supported. Universities should be enabled to become the engines of development through scholarship schemes, partnership programmes and even guest lecturer opportunities.
PhD researchers and postdoctoral scholars can boost, not only the university, but also the country’s research capacity. Investing in a PhD course is not a cheap affair.
Not every student who embarks on a PhD course will complete the journey. There will be dropouts, a result of poor supervision and lack of money causing the hopefuls to run out of steam.
The quality of graduates, too, can be affected by these factors: the length of PhD training, at three years, is too short; many PhD supervisors are not well qualified; the system lacks quality control and there is no clear mechanism for weeding out poor students.
Some, upon completion, do not return to the country, draining away the cream of the country’s crop.
In some countries, brilliant, well-trained minds of these postgraduates go to waste when trends change. It is time to ensure that we take full advantage of their qualifications.
Stepping up PhD recruitment to meet a certain goal must then include some thought to where all these postdoctorates are going to end up.
This means supply should not outstrip demand and quality of graduates must be consistent with returns of the doctoral investments.
Science follows global rules and collaboration is key to the scientific process when used strategically.
Embedding higher education and research within international knowledge networks while catering for local needs should always be made explicit.
Ideally PhD scholars pursuing their studies under scholarships must make full use of their experience to teach, work collaboratively across national and disciplinary borders, network and be part of a community among all researchers of related disciplines regardless of rank.
Another recent encouraging example of collaborative efforts is of Navin Kumar Loganadan, a PhD student at the Department of Pharmacy from University Malaya, who became the only Malaysian selected from among 20 scientists around the world to join Novartis, a global healthcare company, for a three-month internship in Switzerland.
The argument for doing a PhD is that a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, that lecturers should hold advanced degrees.
Graduates often continue in academia, but some can also make the transition out of academia. Thus, the way should not just be focused on assembly-line production of academics but also opening students’ eyes to the possibilities that await them in academia and beyond, which may include redefining the PhD as training for high-level positions in careers outside academia.
A PhD is not just the mastery of a discipline, but also training of the mind. If one later gets to practise what one has mastered, good for them, otherwise, they can take their skill sets into a new domain and add value to it as long as they can.
It is fair enough that the recent issue on professors’ contract renewals at public universities who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 60 should fall on each institution’s decision, which will take into consideration the track record possessed, such as number of researches, teaching skills, number of publishing, and citations before deciding whether or not to rehire.
For Dr Rainer Weiss, one of the main physicists who spent his entire life measuring the most ineffable of Einstein’s notions, it was a long awaited triumph before he was able to enjoy the victory lap.
Although retired with emeritus status at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his journey on the gravitational waves continued.
He was quoted as saying that his life before this discovery was more like that of a graduate student; tinkering and making things work at one of the two sites where the detectors were placed for the runs on the experiments.
The journey for postdoctorates goes a long way.
In Einstein’s case a fleeting chirp to confirm the existence took 100 years of research and more than 1,000 scientists to confirm the theory. We then have to start somewhere.