Why Write A PhD?

13 July 2011

Thor May : thormay AT yahoo.com


further articles dealing with the research process and the connundrums of PhD study : Pissing On Every Lamp Post :
the paradox of scholarship
; The Doctor's Dilemma - Reading versus Active Experience; How To Get The Degree You Want, or Are You A Fake?;
withrawal from PhD candidacies (Thor May) in 1988 & 1996;letter of PhD completion from the University of Newcastle, 2010;dissertation, Language Tangle, 2010; some references from other writers are at the end of this piece. Why Write A PhD? is duplicated in a blog here


Most of the discussion here was written to myself in 2009. It was done as I finished off what was to finally be the doctoral dissertation which one particular assembly of examiners and university administrators felt that they were able to accept. Their imprimatur would perhaps influence my public credibility, for what that was worth.  That is, whatever else I wrote or said might have a higher standing in the future for those within the academic sub-culture. Of course, I myself did not change a whit (not even in terms of ego enlargement). It was also crystal clear that the greatest number of fellow humans found the term “PhD” or “Doctor of Philosophy” either entirely meaningless or a fresh cause for treating its owner with suspicion. My cultural roots were after all in Australia, a spot famous for swaggering anti-intellectualism. The ultimate Australian put-down is to call someone a “know all”. There is never a shortage of  “know-nothing” characters ready to cut any likely “know all” off at the knees. Oddly, the know-nothings become quite timid when faced with actual, complex problems themselves. ( These Australian cultural habits can clash violently with the East Asian approach, where people think it is polite and morally right to “give face” to the other guy). Coming out of the Australian soup, my own engagement with the whole doctoral enterprise had always been ambivalent, even at the end, and some flavour of that self-doubt may be evident below. I have published the document because others are at this moment going through the torturous process of wondering about their commitment to writing a PhD. This may help them to crystallize their ideas, whether or not they agree with the sentiments I express.

1. Are PhD’s Really Original?

The internal rules in universities rules which define a PhD invariably say that it must be an original contribution to human knowledge. Ground breaking dissertations have indeed been written from time to time. In fact though, few PhDs amount to some grand, original contribution to human knowledge. Many dissertations do include fresh assemblies of data, which may or may not be useful to someone. However, the interpretation of the data found within these documents is rarely original, except in a trivial sense.  This is because although a PhD is usually written by one individual, it is only allowed to see the light of day after acceptance by a supervisor, various independent examiners, as well as a research committee of the institution. The net result of this institutional filtering is typically a set of propositions which will offend nobody, preferably hedged in the most obscure and tentative language to allow escape and denial if, by some accident, an original idea slips through, then an external party feels threatened or offended, and heat is turned on those who risked their signatures. The whole process had its origins centuries ago in censorious European ecclesiastical environments, and that fundamental psychology of risk aversion remains. In terms of the candidates themselves, worldwide now there is a rolling tsunami of PhD candidates, while in the nature of things, only a small percentage of those people will be equipped by cognitive capacity, or psychological and cultural conditioning to be highly creative.

There is another problem in evaluating the originality and value of doctoral dissertations, and that is a general crisis in the nature and outcomes of research generally. The explosion of human knowledge which has changed the world beyond recognition over the last 300 years has depended critically upon scientific research – that is, systematic experiment which employs the careful selection of variables, is performed under controlled conditions, and which is repeatable by other researchers to check its validity. Science practiced rigorously in this way has brought us a long way, and freed some from the bonds of centuries of superstition. However, there are problems. Only a tiny percentage in any population anywhere really grasps scientific method. Schools and even universities (not to mention industry and businesses) do have a small quota of truly scientific minds at work, but they are also awash with individuals, many influential and in management positions, who utter the word “science” as a purely magical prayer and follow what are really blind religious rituals in the name of science, hoping it will yield them wealth. Indeed, their rituals often do yield wealth. Am I just being cynical? No, I am expressing soundly based skepticism. For example, there is now a flood of meta-statistical studies showing that a vast percentage of “medical research” is either very poor science or downright dishonest (for example, see this David Freedman article from the Atlantic Monthly: “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science“). What goes for medicine goes for every other kind of research, and even more so in social sciences where the variables are essentially impossible to control.  For most people, this is all too hard. They will just follow the money, and damn the science. The poor PhD student who really sets out to do “original research” is quite likely to find that his examiners, and the university administrators also think his ideas are all too hard to support …

2. The Incentive Trail for PhDs

To be realistic, we must ask where the rewards lie for the production of this document, the doctoral dissertation. It may be that an entirely open public accounting cannot be publicly expressed in institutional documents, but like covert values in general, actual (as opposed to promised) rewards are likely to have great hidden power. The rewards seem to divide into those accruing to the actual writer, and those accruing to the institution with its associated members.

3. The Idiosyncratic Researcher

Individuals may pursue a particular line of research out of genuine intellectual curiosity, and for some of them this curiosity may override the more common needs for public respect, a credible income, a viable career, and so on. In fact the research activity may persist long after it has become apparent that its pursuit is quite counterproductive to any normal lifestyle. It does not necessarily follow however that such a commitment to inquiry will be a contributing asset towards success in the institutional environment. Others, more driven by vanity or social pressure may well make the compromises necessary for PhD acceptance long before the genuinely interested researcher surrenders his independence.

4. The Personally Instrumental

At final completion, for the individual the award may signal qualification for a particular career path and/or acceptance into a particular profession. It might offer enhanced mobility across social and national borders. It may even amplify marriage prospects of a certain kind in some cultures. Not all PhDs generate these rewards for all individuals.

5. The Individual and Self-Esteem

Depending upon the personality of the award holder, the PhD may serve to buttress the self-respect of the individual against uninformed criticism. It may (or may not) induce some sense of superiority, such as others obtain from rank, money, inherited status, and so on. It may pander to vanity. In short, the PhD has a potential to touch the core personality of the holder in ways great or small.

6. The Individual in Public Perception

Also for the individual, the award may allow others (qualified or not qualified to have an opinion) to believe that the PhD holder has an important level of expertise in some area of knowledge. In practice this expertise may or may not exist. It may be well applied, or it may be negated by other factors such as (for example) a poor sense of proportion or poor judgement, or individual personality quirks.

7. The PhD as a Tool for Other Players

For society as represented diffusely through governments and public endorsement (where it exists) there is a generalized notion that each PhD graduate has a good chance of making contributions to the common welfare in ways that, say, some guy flipping hamburgers is unlikely to. Whether this faith is justified in the aggregate is a complex question not only of monetary economics, but of what the said society values as a contribution.

For the issuing institution and its stakeholders, the award of a PhD represents a kind of public validation of their activities. That validation has many components:

- there is the claim that the institution really is a productive environment for ‘new knowledge’

- there is an opportunity to claim that the new knowledge has significance for the culture in which it is embedded.

- there is the reflected glory of having sheltered, nurtured and guided the researcher in ways that are productive for the society.

- there may be financial reward as a direct consequence of innovation, or in the very least through the marketing edge of being associated with a winner.

- there may be a further role in encouraging other researchers or even industries to build upon and profit from the claimed new learning.

8. Barriers to Originality and Completion in Research

Just as every PhD candidate brings his or her own strengths and limitations to the task, so institutions themselves have their own collective characters, and also characteristics which are common to institutional environments everywhere. However, while candidates may be malleable to some extent, as well as willing to grow and develop unexpected capacities, institutions and their fixed players start from conservative compromise, and tend towards rigidity over time. This has real consequences for the creation and acceptance of PhDs.

Institutional courage is a rare quality in any culture, and commonly punished when it does appear. Collective and personal timidity is therefore a defining motif in most institutions. Creativity may be relatively disciplined or fairly undisciplined, but a timid and conventional personality is not its most obvious agent. In truth, a high proportion of academic staff are very ordinary people. Individuals, academic and non academic, are attracted to university life for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are publicly admired, and some are more covert. My own observation over a long period has been that large numbers of the people I have met in these places were not terribly adventurous, or brave, or even curious. Many liked the ‘cultured’ ambiance (real or imagined) of universities. They liked security and comfort and predictable lives. Their conversations were neither witty nor learned. Many liked to feel a little superior to the common workforce, but might be shocked to learn how much they really have in common with many office workers and public servants.

Many a beginning PhD candidate, coming to the door of faculty life, finds himself or herself an outsider in every sense. He is a marginal figure, financially and socially insecure, and not quite acceptable. He is a source of some unease if he shows any potential to disturb the fixed patterns of institutional life. The document he is expected to produce is required to follow rules and rigidities as arcane as a medieval quadrille. Although it need not (probably must not) say anything of great significance, he should say it in a way that sounds both significant and suitably obscure. The proper performance of this writing act signals that the candidate has absorbed the values of the academic club sufficiently to be admitted to junior membership. In common with countless other cultural institutions, an academic player must never seriously question the rules of the game. There is a universal punishment for denying the tooth fairy, Santa Clause, God, the Chinese Communist Party or the Academic Quadrille: it is exclusion from the spoils. Most of course learn to dance in the required fashion. Those who do not are, on the whole, easily dismissed.

9. The Dilemma

So here is the dilemma of one who sets out to write a PhD. The award is not an old one in Australia, or even England, yet increasingly it is codified. Those asked to examine PhDs now study manuals on how it should be done. They go through checklists which define everything from line spacing to the inclusion of, say, a literature search in the correct place. They check whether the writer has expressed himself with proper circumspection, and count the number of times he genuflects in the direction of ‘famous’ authorities. There are of course many excellent PhDs written which happen to meet all of these expectations. There are also library repositories groaning with never-to-be-read-again PhDs which made all the requisite dance steps, gathered the imprimatur of the committees and experts, and signified… well, nothing except the elevation of their owners to scholastic heaven. The problem of course is that rare dissertation which somehow wriggles past the supervisor, whirls by with some mischief in its eye, doesn’t fit the checklists, but really does say something of significance.

The PhD candidate reads the rules and finds that he must make an original contribution to human knowledge, whatever that means. Then he looks around at the place where it is to be done. He looks over those who have the power to accept or reject his ‘original contribution’. What does he see? Mostly he sees an environment steeped in risk aversion. He sees a place where knowledge from ‘authority’ almost always comes up trumps (notwithstanding cautionary tales of the Ptolemaic universe believed by the wise men of Europe for 1,500 years until challenged by Copernicus and Galileo). He sees that he is really required to please a group of people who instinctively seek safety in numbers (they call it peer approval). He sees above all that he is a temporary hanger-on amid a cosy club of employed insiders who rarely venture beyond their comfort zones. Maybe, given a certain cast of personality, he will want to be one of them. Or maybe he is the type who self-destructively yearns to swim free in an ocean of inquiring minds, and heads off to subversive reaches in Google cyberspace.

10. The Last Player Standing

Why did Thor May still keep running in this contest? He managed to lose the best years of his life following the Idiosyncratic Researcher model. Along the way he learned a little of the music of the spheres, spurned producing the required document in the required manner, forsook whatever chance there had ever been of what others called a respectable career, stayed free and perpetually close to poverty. He wound up in Asia, having a not bad life as one of the despised white trash they call an English conversation teacher. He tried a third fling at the PhD game with some reluctance, motivated by a foolish idea that a bit of truth telling from 33 years of experience might be of use to someone, and doubly compelled to keep the Angels of the Apocalypse at bay for a little while longer. Specifically, if he could shove a magic document called a PhD under the pointy noses of very-important-officials, like the Chinese Public Security Bureau mandarins, he might be allowed to live a happy and productive life for a few more years, offering opportunities to young men and women, as opposed to frittering life away, unemployable and unwanted in some rented room on the pittance of an Australian age pension. These were trivial concerns of course amongst the councils of the wise back in Australia. As it turned out, the Chinese Public Security Bureau mandarins like their Australian analogues, were not in the least bit interested anyway. Their rule book said that at 65 foreigners were gaga, prone to drop dead and should be expelled. And so it happened: PhD + age pension = silly old bugger.




Other References


English, Tony (March 16, 2011) Weasel Words and the Soft Sell, The Australian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/weasel-words-and-the-soft-sell/story-e6frgcko-1226022023977 [on academic standards]

Onselen, Peter van (June 22 2011) Loneliness of the PhD Thesis Writer, The Australian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/loneliness-of-the-phd-dissertation-writer/story-e6frgcko-1226079461466

Rowbotham, Jill (14 April 2011) Students Want A Career In Academe, The Australian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/students-want-a-career-in-academe/story-e6frgcjx-1226045180536

Slade, Christina (20 April 2011) Unlocking The Doors To A Doctorate, The Australian @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion-analysis/unlocking-the-doors-to-a-doctorate/story-e6frgcko-1226041757331

The Economist (16 December 2010) The Disposable Academic - Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time + 190 comments, The Economist @ http://www.economist.com/node/17723223,

Wiener-Bronner, Danielle (25 April, 2011) What's Wrong With American Higher Education?, Huffington Post @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/whats-wrong-with-american_n_853640.html

Wong, Stephen (25 November 2009) In China, an Easy Route to Academic Glory, Asia Times @ http://atimes.com/atimes/China/KK25Ad01.html

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

"Why Write A PhD " © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2011

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