A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?

Jeff Bone jbone@jump.net
Wed, 29 Aug 2001 00:30:13 -0500

Jim Whitehead wrote:

> > 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.

Absolutely.  The only (sometimes common among academics) implicit falacy in this
comparison is that business communication doesn't require the same.  Jim, I've
just spent the last 9 months of my life trying to perfect the 15 PowerPoint
slides that will get a company funded.  Now, granted, the environment is very
unusual.  But those 15 slides have resulted from no less than 16 (in some cases)
extensively-reviewed versions of no less than a dozen separate documents.  If
you think the academic publication guantlet places a premium on crispness,
organization, or presentation above the private sector --- respectfully, you're
wrong.  And the private sector places a criterion on "successful" (given some
intent) publications that academia blissfully ignore:  demonstrated or at least
quantified relevance in some domain.

> 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".

Fair comment.  This was an emotional overreaction on my part to the perceived
implication that academic publications require more, are more scrutinized than,
and are more stringent than private-sector documents and artifacts.

> Yes, one way to game this system is
> to publish large numbers of mediocre journal articles.

And in academia, regardless of innovation or relevance, this seems to positively
correlate with success.  Whereas in the private sector, there is a negative

> No, it doesn't fool
> many people.

Really?  ;-)

> > 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".

Neither is mine.  But let's be clear:  the "leisure class" is attainable by many
other means than family money.  I would say that, say, a married grad student
couple able to afford housing in the married student housing and supported by
grants --- while not vacationing in Aruba by any means --- is definitionally a
part of "the leisure class."  If one cannot or will not afford that lifestyle,
then one hasn't that option.

> 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.

The problem is that academia is a macro-institution;  all the "academy" is a
culture masquerading as an organization, while corporations are distinct
individual entities.  It's a different thing, qualitatively.  (This probably
relates to my general disagreement with collectivism;  in my view, the academy
is a collective of large and ambiguous constitution, while corporations are at
least bounded by their bylaws and fiduciary responsibility.  Advancement in the
former seems more tied to a kind of insider popularity and politics, whereas ---
in the ideal --- advancement in the latter should solely be about
accomplishment.  Hence, advancement in the latter is more meaningful in my
world-view;  money talks, bullshit walks.  Regardless of whether one has been
published in CACM or not.)

> 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.

And again this fails to ask the question:  what is a "paper?"  What is

I'm not trying to rip on you personally as a part of the academy, and I'm not
trying to denigrate your or anyone's accomplishments in said academy.  But the
question is a valid one:  what is the purpose of the academy, how does it relate
to the private sector, and what are the relative expectations of one or the