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Debunking the value of a PhD Debunking the value of a PhD
by Murray Hunter
2014-11-24 10:15:00
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The recent article published in OVI "What is a Ph.D. dissertation?" written by Akli Hadid greatly aroused my feelings about the institution of the Doctorate of Philosophy. Akli inspired me to gather my thoughts together about this institution and think about why it is perceived by so many to be such a valuable qualification.

I then considered that it is worth taking time out to write my personal views of what a PhD is in reality (at least my personal view of reality).

At the risk of being perceived as being totally negative towards the qualification, I must state that PhDs have great value for those pursuing research careers. Many of my academic, industrial, and governmental research friends, have such qualifications, and it is befitting of them and vice a versa. The rigor and discipline of the research and doctoral writing process is probably one of the best apprenticeships anybody could have in a research career.

Traditional domain based research usually only considers a very narrow band of any domain, and the PhD process teaches one how to shift through and evaluate data and information. The PhD provides one with specific domain methodologies.

It is probably in the area of research that the institution of the PhD has developed such mystic among the public over the years. People perceive and respect those with a PhD as someone intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable.

 However, let's look at what a PhD is not?

A PhD is not a demonstration of what could be called practical intelligence or wisdom, or what the person in the street may call 'commonsense' and special insight, due to the nature of the doctoral process.

The doctoral process and structure of the product PhD candidates are expected to produce is rigid, with little leeway allowed for innovation in both substance and presentation. The issue or problem that is studied should be very narrow and specific and it should be looked at in a very structured way, vis a vis the specific research methodology used.

So if I speculate here, many, if not most PhD candidate must follow accepted norms, conventions, and practices, if they are to be awarded the degree, at least during the process of the research and doctoral thesis writing and presentation.

Consequently, a PhD does not warrant that the candidate is broad thinker across domains (necessary in public administration), or creative (management and innovation gurus would espouse that this is an ideal management trait). In actual fact the PhD could be considered as being the antithesis of creativity, teaching candidates that methodical rigidity is the way to get things done. It's a rigid process which takes out most opportunities for any candidate to demonstrate practical creativity.

The tragedy here, is if one subscribes to The Peter Principle, which paraphrased, states that one is promoted within any organization to their level of incompetence, is a tendency towards narrow domain based decision making. And what do we have in many educational, business, and governmental organizations, PhDs as senior managers because of the assumption, that PhD holders have the wisdom necessary to carry of high level management functions. This is one area where the public perception of the PhD is very damaging.

PhDs are particularly paradoxical in Asia, where the author lives. In most countries throughout the region, it is a requirement in most universities that lecturers and senior faculty positions be presided over by PhD holders. What Asia really needs are generalists in education, particularly undergraduate education, but specialists are exercising undue influence in these institutions, which in the author's opinion is holding back both on progress and quality.

Ironically, its these people who tend to get promoted to general management in educational institutions, and what are they getting for it, rigidity and compliance to a state of mediocrity, in contrast to the recipes for creativity espoused by Richard Florida in his seminal tome "The Rise of the Creative Class". 

A PhD just doesn't guarantee wise creative professional, of which it is perceived to deliver.

A PhD can only guarantee that the candidate who is awarded the degree has worked diligently and methodically in producing a narrow piece of domain research. This to a great degree has been undertaken with great assistance by others in specific areas like research methodology. Understandably, the supervisor(s) have played a major role in guiding the direction of the doctoral work as well. To a great degree, a doctoral thesis is a work of collaboration, as one sees through the two or three journal articles all candidates are required to publish during their research period.

This leads to the comment given by the "good doctor" as Shakespeare would put it, by OVI's very own Dr. Emanuel Paparella. Dr. Paparella said that undertaking a PhD may be a mistake. And for different reasons that he went into, he is very much right about this. As Akli also indirectly alluded to, the intentions and motivation behind one wanting to undertake a PhD are very important.

A PhD could be a big mistake for someone wanting to make an impact upon their domain. For example I had many brilliant lecturers during my education, who saw themselves as practademics working with industry and other stakeholders on important issues in certain domains. Many of these people make a difference but aren't rewarded in the ivory tower of academia. Others may want to make a contribution in knowledge to a particular domain and this may be better undertaken by simply writing a book. As one who took this route, I can vouch that more impact was made on the industry through this medium than I believe could have been done through the rigidity of a doctoral thesis. Again that's my opinion.

Sadly, I saw the reverse, where an old professor of mine completed three PhDs. He had so much to tell the world about, but all his wisdom is locked up in obscure libraries and the intellectual world suffered a great loss of knowledge and new ideas because of this. Had he published his ideas in a book, I have little doubt that his methodologies and ideas would have changed the domain he was involved within.

My comments above are open for anybody to criticize or add to. These as stated are just my personal observations, rather than something that I researched.

I have partly divulged my biases earlier, and want to further state that upon my impending retirement from academia and eventual freedom, I personally plan to undertake a PhD, in something that interests me; theology. My reason for this is I value the learning path that a doctorial dissertation may provide me in the path of enquiry I want to pursue.

 


    
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Emanuel Paparella2014-11-24 14:43:52
Since the “good doctor” has been referred to by name, and associated with Shakespeare to boot, in the above debunking of the Ph.D. institution, I suppose a reply from another “good doctor” may be appropriate. I mean Dr. William James, who is considered one of the most creative and imaginative minds that the US has ever produced in the field of psychology and philosophy. He is the father of pragmatism in philosophy and of “The Varieties of Religious Experiences” in psychology, as most educated people well know. He wrote many other books, all greatly influential.

Dr. James wrote a famous essay titled “The Ph.D. Octopus” which I would highly recommend to all present and future Ph.D. debunkers and even all those who plan to embark on a Ph.D. for whatever reason, be it only in their golden years. In this essay, Dr. James, who by the way taught philosophy at Harvard University, the most prestigious in the US and one of the best world-wide, points out the various pitfalls to avoid, to which I also alluded to in my comment to Akli Hadid's article in Ovi magazine, the most important one perhaps being that it is a mistake to embark on a doctoral program for dubious motives such as that of wanting to appear more clever, or being deferred to, or even for academic career purposes. Those motives may very well end up sapping the creativity of a student, not to speak of the depletion of his wallet.

In my opinion, the most important consideration in what I have just expressed in this all too brief and succinct comment (which deserves further deepening in a future article) is this: the debunking of the Ph.D. in academia always comes across as much more credible when it proceeds from someone who already has a Ph.D. in hand, to use academic jargon, and when one keeps well in mind the statement of Thomas Aquinas that “the abuse does not invalidate or take away the use” of anything; otherwise it runs the real risk of coming across merely as sour grapes. In any case, academics of all stripes and persuasions heed Dr. James’ counsel and beware of the Octopus.



Emanuel Paparella2014-11-24 14:49:07
http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/The-Ph-D-Octopus-By-William-James-Classic-Essays.htm

A follow-up: for the sake of the "good professor" and others interested, should they not have read James' essay yet, the above link will take you directly to the essay.


Advanced degrees2014-11-25 22:22:57
William James did not hold a Ph.D. The only "higher degree" he held was a doctorate in medicine (M.D.). He never practiced medicine as such though his medical training, especially in his knowledge of anatomy a served him in the writing of his classic Principle of Psychology which was published in 1890 when James was forty-eight years of age.


Emanuel Paparella2014-11-26 10:32:38
In my comment I do not say James had an earned Ph.D. but I call him doctor because that is what he was a doctor in medicine.


Emanuel Paparella2014-11-26 17:46:07
Another follow-up: when Professor Hunter mentions the epithet "the good doctor" by Shakespeare, does anybody think that Shakespeare was referring to somebody with a Ph.D.? Most probably he was talking about an M.D. which means medical doctor; which is to say that a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. The word in itself simply means somebody who has great knowledge in any field and has proven it by examinations. The alternative to knowledge is of course ignorance which some have today elevated to the level of policy; but imagination and creativity without knowledge may end up doing more harm than good. Surely Professor Hunter knows that much


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