A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?

Jim Whitehead ejw@cse.ucsc.edu
Tue, 28 Aug 2001 21:52:56 -0700

> Academia is a club in
> which it's easiest for the leisure class to participate, and an
> exclusive political club with its own bullshit politics.
> "Publications" --- in the classic sense, in many journals --- are
> merely a merit badge awarded by this club.

If you have written an academic publication (and it sounds like you have),
then you'll know that it requires a phenomenal amount of effort to develop a
crisp, well-organized presentation of the ideas, along with a clear
positioning against other related work.  While it is true that the academy
uses publications for determining promotion and advancement, and hence is
somewhat akin to Scouting's merit badges, I disagree with the perjorative
"merely a merit badge awarded by the club". Journal articles are hard work,
and hence the academy (in its modern, German-inspired form) aligns its
rewards structures to value this work. Yes, one way to game this system is
to publish large numbers of mediocre journal articles. No, it doesn't fool
many people. But, if the choice is between encouraging greater publication,
and hence faster dissemination of research results, or placing the reward
emphasis elsewhere, I would chose to keep the payoff associated with

> it's easiest for the leisure class to participate

I would claim that in the US, post World War II, the academy has been a
place that all classes can join. While well off, my background is by no
means "leisure class".

All instutitions are "exclusive political club(s) with {their} own bullshit
politics."  All institutions are resource constrained, thus leading to
zero-sum arguments over resources. Resource allocation decisions invariably
lead to politics. Thus, all institutions have their own politics. So, yes,
there are politics in academia. Big deal.

> > And then:
> > > Why do you separate paper writing from the PhD
> > > process? For me they were inseparable.
> >
> > You make my point for me. If they are so inseparable,
> > what is the point of anything else?

My point was they were inseparable in that the skills needed to write a
dissertation are the same needed to write papers. Writing papers helped hone
my writing and analytic capabilities so I could tackle the larger
intellectual project of my dissertation.

- Jim