A modest question: Should we abolish the PhD degree?

Mark Day markday@cisco.com
Thu, 30 Aug 2001 10:13:07 -0400

> My question is aimed solely at the
> process by which it develops new academicians, rather
> than being a fundamental gripe. I published only a
> handful of modest papers, and did not go into academia.
> So you might dismiss my questioning of the process as
> coming from someone who does not sit in the right
> position to judge it. But I am not the only source of
> such rumblings. And as a scholar, you should not
> dismiss questioning too quickly, just because it comes
> from an unfavored position.

I think there are three valuable aspects to the Ph.D. process:

1. Self-directed, relatively unconstrained, intellectual investigation.
2. Apprenticeship to a capable exemplar.
3. Achievement of results, defense of those results.

All are essential elements of learning to do original research.  You can
certainly get them other ways, and not all Ph.D. programs do a very good job
of these.  I don't think it much matters whether a dissertation is ever used
again -- they're training projects, and it's a bonus if any of them turn out
to be useful to more than a handful of people.  (Note, too, that the nature
of doing original research is that there often are very few people in the
world who really understand or benefit from your work, and that you always
wonder whether you're startlingly original or totally irrelevant) ;-)

I think that starting a business can do a good job of covering these areas
except for the word "intellectual" on the first item. It can be
intellectually challenging to develop a business, it is a fine task for
intelligent people, but the criteria on which you're judged are economic not
intellectual.  When you're presenting at an academic conference, you get no
respect for presenting a boring obvious idea that you happen to be using to
make a ton of money; similarly, a business audience tends to have zero
interest in something new, elegant and delightful that can't be monetized.
Different value systems, both important to society, neither intrinsically
better than the other.