Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The PhD fraternity

PZ Myers recently posted an entry that good-naturedly pokes fun at “easier” ways of writing one's doctoral thesis:

This is not fair. Writing a doctoral thesis on a blog? How about doing your masters thesis on a wiki? Don't these people know you're supposed to suffer when writing a thesis?

I remember mine. There were months of tapping it out on an Apple II computer, and occasionally printing it out on the clumsy old dot-matrix printer so my advisor could rip into it and rearrange everything. Then, finally, I'd hook the computer up to the daisy wheel printer the department owned, and print out the good "final" copy for my committee--this had to be done late at night, because it took about 6 hours to print it all. Then the committee hacked it up, I revised it, then back to the daisy wheel for another late night. Then off to the dreaded grad school office, where the proofreader whipped out a ruler and told me one of the margins was off by a sixteenth of an inch--back to the daisy wheel. Then the defense, and "suggestions" for some additions--daisy wheel. Grad school office. Extra space between paragraphs on page 57. Back.

It was hellish. So now the whippersnappers are streamlining the instruments of torture? I don't know that I approve.

Professor Myers is, of course, being silly, and this is all tongue-in-cheek. “You think you have it bad? In my day, we had to walk ten miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. Uphill in both directions.” I enjoyed reading his comments.

But there's a piece of truth in it: a PhD is very much like a fraternity initiation, and that's not a nice comparison. Getting a doctoral degree says, “I have passed through the required portal. I have conformed to certain standards and participated in particular rituals, that I may now be considered ‘worthy’.” And, to be sure, getting a PhD requires a great deal of work and much perseverance, and involves the scrutiny of a panel of one's peers-to-be.

Which really does make it sound like a fraternity initiation.

Because there are two issues here:

  1. There are other ways to prove one's expertise in a field, and
  2. achieving a doctoral degree does not guarantee any particular competence or ability (apart from the ability to write and defend a thesis).
And yet, a PhD is a prerequisite to respect in certain quaters, and to certain jobs — such as jobs teaching at the institutions that confer PhDs. And that's where the fraternity comes in.

I have a friend, for instance, who has decades of experience in her field. She has done acclaimed work with respected institutions all over the world. She's written a book. She'd taught a class for several years at a major northeastern university, as an adjunct instructor, and had gotten top ratings for her teaching. She co-designed the current curriculum in her area. And yet, a couple of years ago she was told that she could no longer teach there, because the school was instituting a new rule: all faculty, including adjunct faculty, must now have PhDs.

And there it was: with a stroke, they eliminated their top instructor for that course, because she hadn't pushed an onion across the room with her nose met an arbitrary requirement, regardless of her obvious qualifications. And yet they probably have a tenure-track PhD-holding faculty member in that department who barely makes it by, flying under the radar. I've seen that many times.

To be clear, I'll repeat this: I don't think that doctoral degrees are without value, by any means. And I think that a great many with PhDs are capable, intelligent, and qualified for whatever work they're doing. But I also think that a PhD is neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate qualifications, and that the criteria for a position should involve qualifications only, not entry tickets. There are many without doctoral degrees who I would nevertheless love to see teaching our top students.

It's a mechanism for self-perpetuation: If you want to play in our sandbox, you have to go through the same process as we did. If you went through any other process, you might be the best in the world... but we won't even consider you.

Unless, of course, you're famous enough or donate enough money, in which case we'll confer an honorary doctorate and welcome you.

It's a fraternity.

No comments: