Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Pursuit of a PhD

Two more provocative articles on the value of the PhD have recently appeared in the Higher Education section of The Australian:

Richard Nile referred to the PhD as a dinosaur from a previous age of elite education. Nevertheless, Kevin Donnelly responded that it is a valuable anachronism. Donnelly further commented that with "much of education [being] consumed by the tyranny of revelance and measured by its utilitarian value, an added advantage to undertaking a PhD is that it is primarily an intellectual exercise that may not have any practical application or worth."

But is the PhD really obsolete and the degree not worth the 4 or so years of rigorous intellectual work? Should one look at this pinnacle of university study and its pursuit as a waste of time not to mention expense?

At the moment, I belong that two thirds of contemporary PhDs who have not secured an academic job and is in a practice profession where having the qualification is seen as "elitist and not to be promoted" (Althea Enid Silk & Colleen E. Whythes, The Academy). But I do not believe that my not having an academic job means that my PhD is a failure. I agree with one of the comments to Nile's post that intellectual and professional benefits can be reaped from a doctoral education even when there is no "direct fit" between the field of research and one's later career path. One other comment suggested that perhaps the PhD is outmoded but there is just no better method of getting research training and that this training is not often recognised and valued.

Certainly, the PhD education has likewise provided me with those "generic capabilities" which I think renders that prestige even outside academia. I still think that I am one of the lucky few who had the opportunity and the privilege to pursue a PhD. As Laurie Johnson suggests, "a side issue that is easily overlooked in the current climate is the idea that doctoral qualifications provide brilliant people with an opportunity to make a genuine contribution to furthering knowledge within a field of specialisation. This is a part of the argument that should never be allowed to drift too far into obscurity..."

I liked how Ian of London summed it all up: "It’s called the pursuit of knowledge because it is the pursuit, not the knowledge, that counts; and ultimately, at a national level, it is the pursuit that pays. As for PhD students themselves, those lucky few who stay in the academy or related areas will ‘get’ a secure low professional wage. So the reason to undertake a PhD is not to make money: it is simply an apprenticeship in a life-long process of disciplined learning. That is the privilege it gains you."

Ian further qualifies:
"A PhD is about practising disciplined reading (meaning both that you need to make yourself read unappetising books in a library for hours every day for years and that you focus your interests within particular communities of scholarship); about working intensely with primary materials (be they manuscripts, historic government records, numbers, etc.); about learning to synthesise and reference that reading/experimentation/field-work in a formal manner that stands up to traditional forms of scrutiny (conference papers, articles,monographs; all anonymously peer reviewed); about bending, breaking, and/or revolutionising those rules within the same forums; about learning to develop with an un-matched level of intensity over an extended period one’s own ideas in the context of other people’s ideas. All up the PhD (a doctorate of philosophy) is all about practising, practising, and practising again, how to read (life) and how to write(about it). I don’t think those skills are outdated, or by any means unbeneficial to society generally, but no one should pretend they are lucrative. So the other key skill a PhD demands students practise and develop is the delineation, budgeting, and justification of a research project."

Now, one should feel ever so lucky to include this as part of one's life experiences.

*comic strip from Piled Higher and Deeper, 8 June 2005

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