[Fwd: A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?]

Jeff Bone jbone@jump.net
Wed, 29 Aug 2001 03:16:32 -0500

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Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 03:16:02 -0500
From: Jeff Bone <jbone@jump.net>
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To: Koen Holtman <koen@hep.caltech.edu>
Subject: Re: A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?
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Koen Holtman wrote:

> On Wed, 29 Aug 2001, Jeff Bone wrote:
> > Let's be concise if somewhat over the top:  the academy somewhat
> > endorses the notion of "pay for brains," though it relies on external
> > and (IMHO) ethically questionable methods of raising monies for said
> > brains.  The private sector pays for accomplishment.
> Jeff, if I am reading you right you are saying that the system by which
> academia assigns value to activities is less perfect in your view than the
> system by which business assigns value.

Definitionally if not idyllically.  The best system we know of to establish
the value of anything is the market.  Unf., the academy is a smaller and
therefore less perfect market than the public market.  Less degrees of
separation == less pooling of imperfect knowledge == less accurate valuation
of a commodity, in this case expertise.

> I'd submit that, as events like the .com bubble inflation and deflation
> show all too plainly, the mechanisms by which business assigns value to
> activities are spectacularly imperfect too.

Well sure.  So you want to judge a system which is demonstrably imperfect in
an anomolous  4 year window relative to a system that has been demonstrably
imperfect --- and evolving even more so in that direction --- over the last
two centuries or more?  Be my guest.  At best you're comparing apples and
oranges in this particular measurement.

> In both business and academia you have the case of people being able to
> support their activities, sometimes indefinately, by reference to
> admittedly imperfect systems of assigning value to these activities.

The question is just this:  which makes more sense?  And more:  what are we
trying to judge / value?  I'll nod back to someone else's earlier comments
that a PhD is, ultimately, a selfish degree if done properly.  It says "I
devoted myself to this topic for a period of time, explored it in some
hopefully unusual level of detail, and convinced a small number of people that
I mastered it, and *just maybe* advanced the state-of-the-art, if only a
bit."  Not a bit more, necessarily, nor anything less.  Now, this is no small
accomplishment --- but neither is it a large accomplishment.  By comparison, a
person's progress through an analogous private-sector career path probably
touches as many or more topics, explores a few in almost as much detail, and
impresses more people --- if salary progression is a guage of such career
progress.  (I'm probably assuming lots of intra- and inter-organizational
moves.  One drawback of the academic career is that one's communities are
often so homogeneous and small.)

I'm really not trying to make a value judgement here, however.  I'm just
pointing out that the market for employees who've been around the market and
the salary levels they require are at a minimum a much more understood,
quantifiable, and objective-in-the-large mechanism of setting value relative
to what is can be said by Dr. X who without further substantiation claims some
intrinsic value because "my committee was P, D, and Q and I published in J, K,
and L."

I could be wrong.  But almost without exception --- only one of note that I
will mention --- in my several years as an entrepreneur / employeer, in CS
advancing degrees are inversely proportional to ability to innovate and / or
produce.  That's what I've seen, but it's been a small sample set so my
hypothesis could be wildly inaccurate.  (Side observation:  the best
programmers I've worked with haven't been formally educated in the
discipline:  they've been geophysicists, linguists, creative writers, and