A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?

Jim Whitehead ejw@cse.ucsc.edu
Tue, 28 Aug 2001 10:57:07 -0700

Russell Turpin writes:
> 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?

Wrong question, I believe. Pursuing a PhD is ultimately a selfish act, an
assertion that I want to learn as much as can be learned about a specific
topic, and that I want to extend knowledge in this area. Often this quest
cannot be immediately justified in terms of direct immediate economic payoff
of the individual dissertation. The entire *system* works -- some of the
thousands of dissertations produced each year will eventually lead to
enormous economic benefit, but it's hard to know which ones those will be
ahead of time.

> example of how the PhD is
> an expensive and poor gating mechanism for this purpose?

If you know of a better vetting mechanism for determining whether someone is
capable of doing original research, I'd like to know about it. Not having a
PhD doesn't mean that you can't do original research, but it does increase
the burden of proof that you can. Having a PhD doesn't mean you can do
original research, but it gives you the benefit of the doubt.

> 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.

Why do you separate paper writing from the PhD process? For me they were

> How many really believe in the PhD process?

For me, it provided value. I am not the same mind that entered the
program -- my analytical skills are much sharper, my ability to write about
computer science is vastly improved. Even once I started writing my
dissertation, I found the dissertation process helped improve my scholarship
and writing. YMMV.

If you think about differences between our civilization, and those that came
before (the Romans being perhaps the closest analog), the University stands
out. Unlike *every* prior civilization, ours has a widely replicated
institution whose mission is to create new knowledge as a public good, and
educate the populace about that research. I believe the University has, in
many direct and indirect ways, significantly improved the quality of our
civilization, and has increased its chance for long-term durability. So, if
the only value of the PhD is to train people for academia, then to me that
is value enough. Of course, many PhDs do not end up in academia, bringing
their skills to bear in government and industry, so the value of a PhD is
much, much more than a training program.

- Jim