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What's in a PhD? What's in a PhD?
by Murray Hunter
2019-08-20 10:51:18
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A Doctor of Philosophy or PhD is the highest form of degree conferred by universities. The PhD exists in many forms and has varying requirements depending on country, subject area, university, and faculty. The degree is reflective of the traditional apprentice-master relationship going back to Medieval times, where a candidate undertakes a project or piece of research under a supervisor or number of supervisors to produce a thesis or dissertation that is accepted by experts in the field. The research is required to be original and push out the boundaries of knowledge in the field.

The degree carries with it a salutation “doctor” which signifies one is now a peer in a particular field of research. Undertaking a PhD is one of the few ways one can get a salutation that is perceived to generate respect in the community. However, culture, ethics, and professional practices of using this salutation greatly varies from country to country.

phd01_400The use of the salutation “Dr” is not respected as much in Australia as it is in Europe. In Asia, there is a great aura around the salutation that has led to a massive marketplace in fake degrees, ghost writing of dissertations, and scams presenting honorary degrees to politicians, academics, businesspeople, management consultants, and professional trainers.

Before the advent of powerful micro and mini computers, and the internet, students would have to search library catalogues manually and then go and physically hunt down, or wait for inter-library requests to come in for articles and books. This added hundreds, if not thousands of hours to the literature review process. Any data analysis would require punching holes in a series of data input cards which would take days to prepare. One would have to book computer time and if an error came up with the data entry cards, the whole process would have to be repeated.

Today, library catalogues, journal and book databases, along with lectures and conference talks are all available online without the need to leave home. One can almost instantaneously communicate with other researchers in the same disciplinary areas very easily. In most research areas today, there is much more volume of materials to go through, however advanced filtering systems are available to narrow down information searches. The art of deciding what to cover within a literature review is much more challenging than it was in the past.

The particular work that goes into completing a PhD is wide and varied depending on the discipline. Agriculture, engineering, biotechnology, applied chemistry, information technology, along with medical, and environmental sciences may involve a physical benchtop, lab, or field project. Pure mathematics, theoretical physics, some aspects of aeronautical engineering may require intensive computer modelling and virtual simulations. Management, entrepreneurship, sociology, education, and psychology may require an extensive quantitative survey, or intensive qualitative collection of data.

The outcomes could be a computer or mathematical model, a process, an analytical model verified by data analysis, or even a new compound, or product. Doctorial projects could be stand alone or part of a much larger project under a professor in a lab cluster. Doctorial projects could also be out in industry. One example of PhD students playing an integral role in developing not only new processes and products, but a new industry for a region was the University of Tasmania’s collaboration with Tasmanian farmers to create an essential oil industry. This project created many new patents for processes and commercial products.

As the above indicates, part of the aim of a doctoral program is to immerse the student into a research environment. Thus, within the sciences, the PhD grounds students into the fields of private or public technology orientated research.

Outside of a research career, a PhD is part of the track to become a professor. It’s unusual for anyone without a PhD to be appointed a professor. However, this is even more unlikely today as the number of PhD holders as members of faculty is an important marker in university ranking surveys. Many who pursue this track are already members of a university faculty and would most probably undertake the doctorate as a mature student with a stipend or scholarship.

Evidence indicates that a PhD is becoming more important for policy analysis positions within government, major international organizations, and large NGOs.  However, currently there appears to be a mismatch between PhD holders and job opportunities, where many graduates are finding it extremely difficult to find a job.

The quality of a PhD varies greatly. The amount of effort candidates put in differs according to their personal objectives. On one end, some may want the degree for a job promotion and just do the minimum amount of work to meet the degree requirements, while some may undertake a PhD for the love of research and make the dissertation their Magnum Opus. The university a person received their degree from is probably of more importance early in a career, than later in a career. What is more important to those who are close to the discipline is who the supervisor for the dissertation was. Some supervisors are very selective about who they are willing to supervise.

The impact of the PhD can be seen in the number of citations journal articles the candidate wrote about their dissertation. It normally takes a couple of years for enough citations to be generated to see the impact of the research work. Other indicators of the work’s impact would be invited chapters in academic books within their dissertation area, illustration of findings in textbooks on the area, and/or any valuable industry practices or patents generated. The writer is not sure how many dissertations today actually push forward knowledge within their respective domains.

Many PhD graduates do work that has little relationship with the field they studied and researched. Some of the technologies worked on within the sciences, particularly information technologies may become obsolete soon after graduation.

What is the value of a PhD?

A PhD is concerned with developing a personal framework about scientific or disciplinary investigation, analysis, and understanding. A PhD develops critical problem-solving skills, particularly with mass data.

However, it must be said here that undertaking a PhD for so many years is not the only way to learn these skills. Nothing is better than experience in developing personal mastery within a discipline. Academia itself has seen the issues with specialization and developed hybrids such as the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), which is an extension of an MBA, industrial PhDs that can be undertaken within the workplace, and PhD by publication.

Another alternative is life-long education where a person undertakes short certificate, diploma and graduate diploma courses that suit his or her career needs at the time. This approach can foster interdisciplinary thinking.

Many universities are promoting PhDs as a means for better employment opportunities, higher salaries, and a pathway to achieve an outstanding career. However for students who don’t already have a job or promise of a job, the reality is often very different where after graduation they are just caste off and forgotten by the university concerned. Employment prospects are not as good as made out and there is a glut of PhD holders in many areas.

In the chase of the lucrative PhD market, some universities are breaching ethics through institutionalizing double standards. One of the biggest growth markets for PhD students exists where South East Asian universities are sending their staff overseas to undertake a PhD. There are inter-university agreements where candidates from South East Asian universities are automatically passed no matter the standard according to sources.

Supervisors have been heavily criticized for exploiting PhD students. Supervision of postgraduate students is a very important KPI for academic promotion. Supervisors are able to produce many more academic papers as co-authors with their students, with little or no input. PhD students assist academics get research funding. PhD students make cheap assistants, lecturers, tutors, and researchers. Supervisors have been accused of taking credit for student ideas without giving the student any acknowledgement.

Research is full of dangers. Too often, research is repetitive, too situational, relevant to a very small cohort, or of marginal importance. Some supervisors and students don’t fully understand the principles of sampling, statistical analysis, and the weaknesses of instrumentation. There are errors of reasoning in developing a general research project design. There is a general bias towards quantitative analysis, which often ignores the value of qualitative research. There are many fallacies and misconceptions about the way problems are defined, sampling, analysis and interpretation.

Is a PhD worth it?

This is a very personal answer. If undertaking a PhD is part of a journey to an academic and/or research career. This is especially the case if you are already employed. If you are not employed, getting a job will require more than the PhD. It’s a matter of who you know or who you can get to know. This requires being seen through networking and perhaps being published not just in academic journals, but the industry media as well.

Whether or not you do a PhD is about weighing out the costs verses the benefits. What are you going to achieve from a PhD? What is the opportunity cost of further study verses gaining more work experience? Can you work by yourself for long periods of time singly focused on one thing? Do you have the passion for it and will you be able to keep motivated? Do you have the financial resources?

PhDs are extremely stressful for some. The dropout rate is around 40%. If you drop out you end up with nothing. Being a mature person with experience is an advantage, but this also depends upon family commitments and responsibilities.

If you are pursuing a PhD for the love of research (and many do), then look at alternatives such as writing a book which provides wider latitudes than the set dissertation format within the PhD process.

A PhD doesn’t guarantee a top achiever, brilliance, creativity, a good communicator or team player. A PhD shows that someone has the discipline and is prepared to do the hard work on a long-haul project. The irony is that most dissertations may only ever be read by a select few people.

Universities within the South-East Asian region are short-changing themselves with their requirement to employ only PhD holders in undergraduate and post graduate teaching where the jobs really require a person with a versatile knowledge across the field they will be teaching.

The key to seeing out the distance on such a commitment is passion for the subject and the motivation to carry one through the setbacks through the process.

A PhD is still a good apprenticeship for a research career, although there are many outstanding thinkers, scientists, and professors who had successful careers without a PhD.  

There is a risk in the future that institutional requirements for PhDs will prevent people like Robin Milner, Simon Peyton Jones, Lynn Conway, Walter Russell Mead, Freeman Dyson, Walter Pitts, Ernest Rutherford,  Robert Pound, Robert Floyd, Jane Richardson, Satyendra Nath Bose, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Tu Youyou, coming through to excellence in their respective fields.

Public reverence throughout the history of saluting such a high degree of scholarship is premised on the belief that the one accorded the title is a learned sage, expert, and member of the professoriate. Those were the days when according the honor was more stringently observed. When too many fakes or dysfunctional ones, as is the case today are being certified by the degree mills or bona fide institutions for commercial reasons, then it is time that society needs to reexamine the academic worth of the holder of the title rather than the title itself.


    
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