What’s a PhD For?
Are PhDs as we know them fit for 21st century learning?
“Doctor, Doctor — I think I want to become a Doctor”
Should people wanting to do a PhD be seeking medical advice from “a real doctor”? Though becoming a Doctor is a milestone on the road to becoming a professor, people do PhDs to broaden career prospects or increase salary, to specialise in a particular area, to write a thesis, help solve problems, gain credibility, to put off job hunting or for love of a subject. In the process of conducting research, one is supposed to produced advanced work which makes “a significant new contribution to your chosen discipline”. The doctorate qualification comes from the need for university faculty members to be a credible authority in their field, with thorough knowledge to its very boundaries and ability to push them. Being a doctor is supposed to indicate that you are worthy of being listened to, a mark of credibility.
Doctor: “Are you sure?”
Doing a PhD might just break your soul. The work can be incredibly isolating. In addition to devoting most of your time and energy to your research, many PhD students are working to support themselves and their dependents (sometimes making new ones). Supervisors can exercise significant power over their students and while publications are incentivised, compassion is not. Students’ grades can be affected by departmental politics. How are students supposed to maintain a healthy balanced lifestyle under multiple pressures? Half of PhD students might not.
Depending on where they are, someone completing a PhD may join a job-market over-saturated with Doctors.
In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured. https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/pdf/472276a.pdf
Japanese universities don’t need the faculty for their shrinking population, and the debated quality of PhDs from certain countries may not provide the academic credibility one had hoped for. People with PhDs constitute a cheap labour for universities, who can hire a post-doc to teach classes and conduct research for about 20% of the cost of a full professor. Whereas having a Master degree might increase your salary by 26%, 3–5 years or more of hard graft for the PhD might only add another 3% on that. Besides salary, did doing the PhD lead to happier people? Perhaps — a tiny bit.
The good in higher education (a personal reflection)…
I love exploring unknowns with purpose. I was fortunate enough to have caring supervisors (both women) who encouraged me to develop my interests so my research topics were absolutely of my choosing, including a social anthropology undergraduate thesis on Glastonbury festival, and a global environmental studies on environmental education in Yap, (Federated States of Micronesia). I especially enjoyed being ‘in the field’, entirely unknown to me prior to my studies and reading intensively and extensively about topics I was curious about. Most of all, I loved interviewing people — research gives you a valid reason to ask people all sorts of important questions you might not ask otherwise. Useful skills I learnt included writing a (research) proposal and seeking funding eg. writing scholarship applications and running a crowdfunding campaign. Being prepared for fieldwork in foreign environments included safety concerns, privacy, equipment, back up, and protecting your data. And answering to the police in a foreign country.
and the ugly…
Throughout my school life I wondered when I would be able to express my views but kept being told it was at the next level. Before my GCSEs they told me that my A-levels would allow me to express myself. At A-levels I was told at university I’d be given voice. But during undergraduate studies I felt like my job was to read what I was told to and reformulate it into an essay. Regurgitation has been the name of this game.
Higher education didn’t provide enough academic support. I muddled my way through data analysis to some form of conclusion before my professor would give me feedback on the thesis. This is not to fault my professor, rather, academia favours professors who focus on research and publishing papers, not those who teach well and offer compassionate guidance. I got straight As in my courses and thesis and close to zero feedback. Well prepared to defend the contents of my thesis, all I was asked was why I’d put my bibliography at the end of the work instead of at the end of each chapter. How much time are professors given to read theses?
Was I simply naive for wanting my work to contribute meaningfully or to help solve a problem? Students put all this work in and then what? Academia measures impact through publication so I jumped at the opportunity to have my thesis published in the departmental journal, which remains hidden behind the university’s log-in — you can’t read it here.
Education systems are in a complex position; society rightly wants evidence of positive outcomes for all that time, energy and money invested, but we are unable to measure all that is valuable. Focusing only on the outcomes can mask the potentially harmful processes that preceded it. Equally complex is trying to measure the negative impacts of this system.
A doctorate is the highest academic qualification in a world in which academia largely focuses on cognitive ways of knowing, as if our heads can be dislocated from our bodies and the environments we inhabit. The field of knowledge in the 21st century is so changed from when PhDs became a thing, that the only way to have a thorough “knowledge of their field to its very boundaries with the ability to push them” is to specialise in an area so narrow that it may no longer be useful in broader life. In a world crying out for radical change, here we are in the 2020s crippled in inertia that the dominant education system is at least partly responsible for. Education is “sustaining unsustainability”. What is the PhD equivalent for the highest qualification on bodily knowing, emotional knowing, or intuitive knowing? Where is the path that recognises these different ways of knowing and aims to cultivate them in a more balanced way? Where is the learning with compassion, gratitude, with love?