A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?

Russell Turpin deafbox@hotmail.com
Tue, 28 Aug 2001 17:27:10 +0000

Several on this list are encouraging Rohit to return to
school to finish his dissertation after his business
ventures.  The question should be asked: Why?  Would
writing his dissertation and managing his committee
really be the most valuable tasks he could next do, for
any reasonable measure of value?  Or if the purpose is
purely utilitarian, to smoothe his way to future
academic post, then wouldn't the Rohit of five years
from now serve as yet another example of how the PhD is
an expensive and poor gating mechanism for this purpose?

It's not just this way in computer science. I have a
friend who, for many years, was an ABD in American
History. Despite that, he taught economics and history
at various colleges, published a boatload of papers,
wrote an economic history of the Civil War, and this
year he is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. After
he wrote the book, some of his old committeed asked,
"Why don't you polish this and make it your
dissertation?" Which he did. But it required more than
a year of effort jumping through the usual hoops. So now
he has the dissertation and the degree. How many will
really read the dissertation? Would not that year have
been better spent writing his next book? Will the world
lose out on an interesting book, in return for yet
another history dissertation? Our productive years are
few. I often think the the PhD process -- not the actual
research or paper publishing, which we might do anyway,
but just the degree process itself -- burns significant
effort from some of the brightest folks around, effort
that would be better applied elsewhere.

This list is heavy with PhD's, and ABDs. So I'm curious:
How many really believe in the PhD process? Obviously,
I've become skeptical of it. But mine is from the
University of Texas, where Frank Dobie taught. So maybe
I'm unduly influenced by his view.

  "The average PhD thesis is nothing but the transference
  of bones from one graveyard to another." -- Frank Dobie

Dobie was true to his views, and never sought a PhD. For
that and other reasons, he was never quite comfortable in
academia. If I were more Chomskian in my outlook, I would
argue that one purpose of the PhD is to train people to
the needs of the university as institution. My own view
isn't that dark. But one has to wonder.

  "I have come to value liberated minds as the supreme
  good of life on earth." -- Frank Dobie


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