50. Why Write A PhD?

note: here are fur­ther arti­cles deal­ing with the research process and the con­nun­drums of PhD study : Piss­ing On Every Lamp Post : the para­dox of schol­ar­ship; The Doctor’s Dilemma – Read­ing ver­sus Active Expe­ri­ence; How To Get The Degree You Want, or Are You A Fake?; with­rawal from PhD can­di­da­cies (Thor May) in 1988 & 1996;let­ter of PhD com­ple­tion from the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, 2010;dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, 2010; some ref­er­ences from other writ­ers are at the end of this piece. Why Write A PhD? is dupli­cated on http://thormay.net here

Most of the dis­cus­sion here was writ­ten to myself in 2009. It was done as I fin­ished off what was to finally be the doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion which one par­tic­u­lar assem­bly of exam­in­ers and uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tors felt that they were able to accept. Their impri­matur would per­haps influ­ence my pub­lic cred­i­bil­ity, for what that was worth.  That is, what­ever else I wrote or said might have a higher stand­ing in the future for those within the aca­d­e­mic sub-cul­ture. Of course, I myself did not change a whit (not even in terms of ego enlarge­ment). It was also crys­tal clear that the great­est num­ber of fel­low humans found the term “PhD” or “Doc­tor of Phi­los­o­phy” either entirely mean­ing­less or a fresh cause for treat­ing its owner with sus­pi­cion. My cul­tural roots were after all in Aus­tralia, a spot famous for swag­ger­ing anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism. The ulti­mate Aus­tralian put-down is to call some­one a “know all”. There is never a short­age of  “know-noth­ing” char­ac­ters ready to cut any likely “know all” off at the knees. Oddly, the know-noth­ings become quite timid when faced with actual, com­plex prob­lems them­selves. ( These Aus­tralian cul­tural habits can clash vio­lently with the East Asian approach, where peo­ple think it is polite and morally right to “give face” to the other guy). Com­ing out of the Aus­tralian soup, my own engage­ment with the whole doc­toral enter­prise had always been ambiva­lent, even at the end, and some flavour of that self-doubt may be evi­dent below. I have pub­lished the doc­u­ment because oth­ers are at this moment going through the tor­tur­ous process of won­der­ing about their com­mit­ment to writ­ing a PhD. This may help them to crys­tal­lize their ideas, whether or not they agree with the sen­ti­ments I express.

1. Are PhD’s Really Orig­i­nal?

The inter­nal rules in uni­ver­si­ties rules which define a PhD invari­ably say that it must be an orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion to human knowl­edge. Ground break­ing dis­ser­ta­tions have indeed been writ­ten from time to time. In fact though, few PhDs amount to some grand, orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion to human knowl­edge. Many dis­ser­ta­tions do include fresh assem­blies of data, which may or may not be use­ful to some­one. How­ever, the inter­pre­ta­tion of the data found within these doc­u­ments is rarely orig­i­nal, except in a triv­ial sense.  This is because although a PhD is usu­ally writ­ten by one indi­vid­ual, it is only allowed to see the light of day after accep­tance by a super­vi­sor, var­i­ous inde­pen­dent exam­in­ers, as well as a research com­mit­tee of the insti­tu­tion. The net result of this insti­tu­tional fil­ter­ing is typ­i­cally a set of propo­si­tions which will offend nobody, prefer­ably hedged in the most obscure and ten­ta­tive lan­guage to allow escape and denial if, by some acci­dent, an orig­i­nal idea slips through, then an exter­nal party feels threat­ened or offended, and heat is turned on those who risked their sig­na­tures. The whole process had its ori­gins cen­turies ago in cen­so­ri­ous Euro­pean eccle­si­as­ti­cal envi­ron­ments, and that fun­da­men­tal psy­chol­ogy of risk aver­sion remains. In terms of the can­di­dates them­selves, world­wide now there is a rolling tsunami of PhD can­di­dates, while in the nature of things, only a small per­cent­age of those peo­ple will be equipped by cog­ni­tive capac­ity, or psy­cho­log­i­cal and cul­tural con­di­tion­ing to be highly cre­ative.

There is another prob­lem in eval­u­at­ing the orig­i­nal­ity and value of doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tions, and that is a gen­eral cri­sis in the nature and out­comes of research gen­er­ally. The explo­sion of human knowl­edge which has changed the world beyond recog­ni­tion over the last 300 years has depended crit­i­cally upon sci­en­tific research – that is, sys­tem­atic exper­i­ment which employs the care­ful selec­tion of vari­ables, is per­formed under con­trolled con­di­tions, and which is repeat­able by other researchers to check its valid­ity. Sci­ence prac­ticed rig­or­ously in this way has brought us a long way, and freed some from the bonds of cen­turies of super­sti­tion. How­ever, there are prob­lems. Only a tiny per­cent­age in any pop­u­la­tion any­where really grasps sci­en­tific method. Schools and even uni­ver­si­ties (not to men­tion indus­try and busi­nesses) do have a small quota of truly sci­en­tific minds at work, but they are also awash with indi­vid­u­als, many influ­en­tial and in man­age­ment posi­tions, who utter the word “sci­ence” as a purely mag­i­cal prayer and fol­low what are really blind reli­gious rit­u­als in the name of sci­ence, hop­ing it will yield them wealth. Indeed, their rit­u­als often do yield wealth. Am I just being cyn­i­cal? No, I am express­ing soundly based skep­ti­cism. For exam­ple, there is now a flood of meta-sta­tis­ti­cal stud­ies show­ing that a vast per­cent­age of “med­ical research” is either very poor sci­ence or down­right dis­hon­est (for exam­ple, see this David Freed­man arti­cle from the Atlantic Monthly: “Lies, Damned Lies and Med­ical Sci­ence“). What goes for med­i­cine goes for every other kind of research, and even more so in social sci­ences where the vari­ables are essen­tially impos­si­ble to con­trol.  For most peo­ple, this is all too hard. They will just fol­low the money, and damn the sci­ence. The poor PhD stu­dent who really sets out to do “orig­i­nal research” is quite likely to find that his exam­in­ers, and the uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tors also think his ideas are all too hard to sup­port …

2. The Incen­tive Trail for PhDs

To be real­is­tic, we must ask where the rewards lie for the pro­duc­tion of this doc­u­ment, the doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion. It may be that an entirely open pub­lic account­ing can­not be pub­licly expressed in insti­tu­tional doc­u­ments, but like covert val­ues in gen­eral, actual (as opposed to promised) rewards are likely to have great hid­den power. The rewards seem to divide into those accru­ing to the actual writer, and those accru­ing to the insti­tu­tion with its asso­ci­ated mem­bers.

3. The Idio­syn­cratic Researcher

Indi­vid­u­als may pur­sue a par­tic­u­lar line of research out of gen­uine intel­lec­tual curios­ity, and for some of them this curios­ity may over­ride the more com­mon needs for pub­lic respect, a cred­i­ble income, a viable career, and so on. In fact the research activ­ity may per­sist long after it has become appar­ent that its pur­suit is quite coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to any nor­mal lifestyle. It does not nec­es­sar­ily fol­low how­ever that such a com­mit­ment to inquiry will be a con­tribut­ing asset towards suc­cess in the insti­tu­tional envi­ron­ment. Oth­ers, more dri­ven by van­ity or social pres­sure may well make the com­pro­mises nec­es­sary for PhD accep­tance long before the gen­uinely inter­ested researcher sur­ren­ders his inde­pen­dence.

4. The Per­son­ally Instru­men­tal

At final com­ple­tion, for the indi­vid­ual the award may sig­nal qual­i­fi­ca­tion for a par­tic­u­lar career path and/or accep­tance into a par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sion. It might offer enhanced mobil­ity across social and national bor­ders. It may even amplify mar­riage prospects of a cer­tain kind in some cul­tures. Not all PhDs gen­er­ate these rewards for all indi­vid­u­als.

5. The Indi­vid­ual and Self-Esteem

Depend­ing upon the per­son­al­ity of the award holder, the PhD may serve to but­tress the self-respect of the indi­vid­ual against unin­formed crit­i­cism. It may (or may not) induce some sense of supe­ri­or­ity, such as oth­ers obtain from rank, money, inherited sta­tus, and so on. It may pan­der to van­ity. In short, the PhD has a poten­tial to touch the core per­son­al­ity of the holder in ways great or small.

6. The Indi­vid­ual in Pub­lic Per­cep­tion

Also for the indi­vid­ual, the award may allow oth­ers (qual­i­fied or not qual­i­fied to have an opin­ion) to believe that the PhD holder has an impor­tant level of exper­tise in some area of knowl­edge. In prac­tice this exper­tise may or may not exist. It may be well applied, or it may be negated by other fac­tors such as (for exam­ple) a poor sense of pro­por­tion or poor judge­ment, or indi­vid­ual per­son­al­ity quirks.

7. The PhD as a Tool for Other Play­ers

For soci­ety as rep­re­sented dif­fusely through gov­ern­ments and pub­lic endorse­ment (where it exists) there is a gen­er­al­ized notion that each PhD grad­u­ate has a good chance of mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the com­mon wel­fare in ways that, say, some guy flip­ping ham­burg­ers is unlikely to. Whether this faith is jus­ti­fied in the aggre­gate is a com­plex ques­tion not only of mon­e­tary eco­nom­ics, but of what the said soci­ety val­ues as a con­tri­bu­tion.

For the issu­ing insti­tu­tion and its stake­hold­ers, the award of a PhD rep­re­sents a kind of pub­lic val­i­da­tion of their activ­i­ties. That val­i­da­tion has many com­po­nents:

– there is the claim that the insti­tu­tion really is a pro­duc­tive envi­ron­ment for ‘new knowl­edge’

– there is an oppor­tu­nity to claim that the new knowl­edge has sig­nif­i­cance for the cul­ture in which it is embed­ded.

– there is the reflected glory of hav­ing shel­tered, nur­tured and guided the researcher in ways that are pro­duc­tive for the soci­ety.

– there may be finan­cial reward as a direct con­se­quence of inno­va­tion, or in the very least through the mar­ket­ing edge of being asso­ci­ated with a win­ner.

– there may be a fur­ther role in encour­ag­ing other researchers or even indus­tries to build upon and profit from the claimed new learn­ing.

8. Bar­ri­ers to Orig­i­nal­ity and Com­ple­tion in Research

Just as every PhD can­di­date brings his or her own strengths and lim­i­ta­tions to the task, so insti­tu­tions them­selves have their own col­lec­tive char­ac­ters, and also char­ac­ter­is­tics which are com­mon to insti­tu­tional envi­ron­ments every­where. How­ever, while can­di­dates may be mal­leable to some extent, as well as will­ing to grow and develop unex­pected capac­i­ties, insti­tu­tions and their fixed play­ers start from con­ser­v­a­tive com­pro­mise, and tend towards rigid­ity over time. This has real con­se­quences for the cre­ation and accep­tance of PhDs.

Insti­tu­tional courage is a rare qual­ity in any cul­ture, and com­monly pun­ished when it does appear. Col­lec­tive and per­sonal timid­ity is there­fore a defin­ing motif in most insti­tu­tions. Cre­ativ­ity may be rel­a­tively dis­ci­plined or fairly undis­ci­plined, but a timid and con­ven­tional per­son­al­ity is not its most obvi­ous agent. In truth, a high pro­por­tion of aca­d­e­mic staff are very ordi­nary peo­ple. Indi­vid­u­als, aca­d­e­mic and non aca­d­e­mic, are attracted to uni­ver­sity life for a vari­ety of rea­sons. Some of those rea­sons are pub­licly admired, and some are more covert. My own obser­va­tion over a long period has been that large num­bers of the peo­ple I have met in these places were not ter­ri­bly adven­tur­ous, or brave, or even curi­ous. Many liked the ‘cul­tured’ ambiance (real or imag­ined) of uni­ver­si­ties. They liked secu­rity and com­fort and pre­dictable lives. Their con­ver­sa­tions were nei­ther witty nor learned. Many liked to feel a lit­tle supe­rior to the com­mon work­force, but might be shocked to learn how much they really have in com­mon with many office work­ers and pub­lic ser­vants.

Many a begin­ning PhD can­di­date, com­ing to the door of fac­ulty life, finds him­self or her­self an out­sider in every sense. He is a mar­ginal fig­ure, finan­cially and socially inse­cure, and not quite accept­able. He is a source of some unease if he shows any poten­tial to dis­turb the fixed pat­terns of insti­tu­tional life. The doc­u­ment he is expected to pro­duce is required to fol­low rules and rigidi­ties as arcane as a medieval quadrille. Although it need not (prob­a­bly must not) say any­thing of great sig­nif­i­cance, he should say it in a way that sounds both sig­nif­i­cant and suit­ably obscure. The proper per­for­mance of this writ­ing act sig­nals that the can­di­date has absorbed the val­ues of the aca­d­e­mic club suf­fi­ciently to be admit­ted to junior mem­ber­ship. In com­mon with count­less other cul­tural insti­tu­tions, an aca­d­e­mic player must never seri­ously ques­tion the rules of the game. There is a uni­ver­sal pun­ish­ment for deny­ing the tooth fairy, Santa Clause, God, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party or the Aca­d­e­mic Quadrille: it is exclu­sion from the spoils. Most of course learn to dance in the required fash­ion. Those who do not are, on the whole, eas­ily dis­missed.

9. The Dilemma

So here is the dilemma of one who sets out to write a PhD. The award is not an old one in Aus­tralia, or even Eng­land, yet increas­ingly it is cod­i­fied. Those asked to exam­ine PhDs now study man­u­als on how it should be done. They go through check­lists which define every­thing from line spac­ing to the inclu­sion of, say, a lit­er­a­ture search in the cor­rect place. They check whether the writer has expressed him­self with proper cir­cum­spec­tion, and count the num­ber of times he gen­u­flects in the direc­tion of ‘famous’ author­i­ties. There are of course many excel­lent PhDs writ­ten which hap­pen to meet all of these expec­ta­tions. There are also library repos­i­to­ries groan­ing with never-to-be-read-again PhDs which made all the req­ui­site dance steps, gath­ered the impri­matur of the com­mit­tees and experts, and sig­ni­fied… well, noth­ing except the ele­va­tion of their own­ers to scholas­tic heaven. The prob­lem of course is that rare dis­ser­ta­tion which some­how wrig­gles past the super­vi­sor, whirls by with some mis­chief in its eye, doesn’t fit the check­lists, but really does say some­thing of sig­nif­i­cance.

The PhD can­di­date reads the rules and finds that he must make an orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion to human knowl­edge, what­ever that means. Then he looks around at the place where it is to be done. He looks over those who have the power to accept or reject his ‘orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion’. What does he see? Mostly he sees an envi­ron­ment steeped in risk aver­sion. He sees a place where knowl­edge from ‘author­ity’ almost always comes up trumps (notwith­stand­ing cau­tion­ary tales of the Ptole­maic uni­verse believed by the wise men of Europe for 1,500 years until chal­lenged by Coper­ni­cus and Galileo). He sees that he is really required to please a group of peo­ple who instinc­tively seek safety in num­bers (they call it peer approval). He sees above all that he is a tem­po­rary hanger-on amid a cosy club of employed insid­ers who rarely ven­ture beyond their com­fort zones. Maybe, given a cer­tain cast of per­son­al­ity, he will want to be one of them. Or maybe he is the type who self-destruc­tively yearns to swim free in an ocean of inquir­ing minds, and heads off to sub­ver­sive reaches in Google cyber­space.

10. The Last Player Stand­ing

Why did Thor May still keep run­ning in this con­test? He man­aged to lose the best years of his life fol­low­ing the Idio­syn­cratic Researcher model. Along the way he learned a lit­tle of the music of the spheres, spurned pro­duc­ing the required doc­u­ment in the required man­ner, for­sook what­ever chance there had ever been of what oth­ers called a respectable career, stayed free and per­pet­u­ally close to poverty. He wound up in Asia, hav­ing a not bad life as one of the despised white trash they call an Eng­lish con­ver­sa­tion teacher. He tried a third fling at the PhD game with some reluc­tance, moti­vated by a fool­ish idea that a bit of truth telling from 33 years of expe­ri­ence might be of use to some­one, and dou­bly com­pelled to keep the Angels of the Apoc­a­lypse at bay for a lit­tle while longer. Specif­i­cally, if he could shove a magic doc­u­ment called a PhD under the pointy noses of very-impor­tant-offi­cials, like the Chi­nese Pub­lic Secu­rity Bureau man­darins, he might be allowed to live a happy and pro­duc­tive life for a few more years, offer­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to young men and women, as opposed to frit­ter­ing life away, unem­ploy­able and unwanted in some rented room on the pit­tance of an Aus­tralian age pen­sion. These were triv­ial con­cerns of course amongst the coun­cils of the wise back in Aus­tralia. As it turned out, the Chi­nese Pub­lic Secu­rity Bureau man­darins like their Aus­tralian ana­logues, were not in the least bit inter­ested any­way. Their rule book said that at 65 for­eign­ers were gaga, prone to drop dead and should be expelled. And so it hap­pened: PhD + age pen­sion = silly old bug­ger.


Other Ref­er­ences

Eng­lish, Tony (March 16, 2011) Weasel Words and the Soft Sell, The Aus­tralian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/weasel-words-and-the-soft-sell/story-e6frgcko-1226022023977 [on aca­d­e­mic stan­dards]

Freed­man, David (Novem­ber 2010) Lies, Damned Lies and Med­ical Sci­ence, The Atlantic Monthly @ http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/2/

Onse­len, Peter van (June 22 2011) Lone­li­ness of the PhD The­sis Writer, The Aus­tralian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/loneliness-of-the-phd-dissertation-writer/story-e6frgcko-1226079461466

Row­botham, Jill (14 April 2011) Stu­dents Want A Career In Acad­eme, The Aus­tralian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/students-want-a-career-in-academe/story-e6frgcjx-1226045180536

Slade, Christina (20 April 2011) Unlock­ing The Doors To A Doc­tor­ate, The Aus­tralian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/unlocking-the-doors-to-a-doctorate/story-e6frgcko-1226041757331

The Econ­o­mist (16 Decem­ber 2010) The Dis­pos­able Aca­d­e­mic – Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time + 190 com­ments, The Econ­o­mist @ http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

Wiener-Bron­ner, Danielle (25 April, 2011) What’s Wrong With Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion?, Huff­in­g­ton Post @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/whats-wrong-with-american_n_853640.html

Wong, Stephen (25 Novem­ber 2009) In China, an Easy Route to Aca­d­e­mic Glory, Asia Times @ http://atimes.com/atimes/China/KK25Ad01.html

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