Whatever its possessors may say to the contrary, the North American doctor
of philosophy degree is not so much about scholarly attainment as it is
about power: sheer, naked, inexorable economic and social power. Originally
intended as the certificate attesting specialized preparation for research
in the major scholarly disciplines, it has proliferated in an unchecked
fashion throughout our intellectual world, becoming the mandatory qualification
for teaching in higher education, employment in research, and advisory
work in business and government. Without the Ph.D. degree, one cannot
now hope to be permanently retained as an instructor at most of the thousands
of institutions of higher learning on this continent, even in the teaching
of junior undergraduates. Without the Ph.D. degree, one cannot now hope
to become involved with formal research in most fields at any level higher
than that of technician or research assistant. And without the graduate
school that grants the Ph.D. degree, a university itself must accept a
lower ranking in the hierarchy of institutions, with a diminished academic
reputation and a reduced income from government and private funding. Social
prestige, financial security and institutional pride have all combined
to make this single piece of paper a professional requirement more formidable
than anything in history since the rule of the mandarins in Imperial China.
And those same social, economic and academic factors have also combined
to conceal from society at large the sad truth that, like the certification
procedures of the Imperial mandarinate, the Ph.D. program has become inflexible,
cumbersome, restrictive and deplorably wasteful. As it presently functions
in most disciplines, it has become a trap for the candidate and a sinkhole
for intellectual resources.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the bittersweet story of the delayed
academic triumph of Frank Bourgin, who must hold the world record for
longevity of a successful doctoral program. When that story first appeared
on the front page of the 22 April, 1988 edition of The New York Times,
it attracted many readers with the simple poignancy of its title: "After
45 Years, Vindication for Scholar." A candidate in political science
at the University of Chicago, Bourgin labored on a lengthy dissertation
from 1940 through to 1942, challenging the established assumption that
the American founding fathers structured the government of their new republic
to function economically in accordance with the widely influential "laissez-faire"
doctrines of Adam Smith. Proceeding initially from Jefferson's policy
statements in office, then on into the public planning proposals of Alexander
Hamilton and others, he argued that the framers of the American constitution
were in fact projectors of what he named "affirmative government":
a strong and interventionist federal presence, intent upon using the financial
and political resources of the nation for the public good, much in the
manner ultimately attempted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the "New
Deal" programs. "I shall never forget the inner excitement of
discovery," he later wrote, recounting the events in a privately-circulated
essay: "and feeling that I was making an important contribution to
better understanding our history, and correcting previous errors of interpretation."
Lamentably, this scholarly exhilaration was doomed to be frayed and dissipated
over decades of increasing frustration. Bourgin's supervisor retired,
and the monumental dissertation "in effect became an orphan."
In March of 1945, while involved in the most recent of a succession of
wartime duties, Bourgin was advised by the department that further work
on the dissertation "was necessary to obtain acceptance."
The department's advisory notice also contained something of an ultimatum:
Bourgin must quit his wartime job and return to the university full-time,
in order to make the required revisions. Speculating on this response
over four decades later, he concluded it stemmed from the department's
anxiety that his work was "too controversial, too new, too different,
too unorthodox to be accepted." But the exigencies of his service
dictated that Bourgin could not comply with the university's conditions,
even had he been so inclined. This impasse meant forfeiting years of intense
research effort; worse still, it meant abandoning all hope for the academic
career that had commenced so brightly before the war with several years
of college teaching. "I was stunned," Bourgin confessed, "and
for a time shattered." Like many others before and since under similar
circumstances, he packed his dissertation away and eventually drifted
into a series of other pursuits. "It took years for me to get over
the pain and suffering," he recalled, "since, in the eyes of
the world and to a degree in my own, I was a failure and I felt it."1
But he never forgot that intricately-argued book, which he carried about
with him year after year in a black steel file box, a solemn testament
to achievement deferred that remained sealed shut until 1985.
Near the middle of the Reagan-Bush era, deep in what some have called
"the decade of greed," with politicians everywhere citing the
American founding fathers as the first proponents of governmental disengagement
from economic affairs, Bourgin wrote a brief summary of his own thesis
in rebuttal, which was published shortly thereafter. Two years later,
after reading a similar line of analysis in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s latest
book, he sent a copy of his summary to the distinguished historian. To
his credit, Schlesinger not only replied positively, but immediately set
in train a process of re-examining the dissertation at the University
of Chicago, subsequently involving himself in finding a publisher for
the work. The only surviving member of Bourgin's original committee soon
testified that he had never seen the study during the war years, effusively
praising it as "a massive scholarly production, organized around
a significant theme with findings powerfully supported by data,"
one that conceivably "has also corrected some important historical
errors."2 On the grounds that the original committee had not had
the opportunity to assess the project properly, the University of Chicago
convened another committee to finish the job: and Dr. Frank Bourgin, on
Friday, June 10, 1988, conveyed to convocation in a wheelchair at age
77, was granted his degree almost half a century after he had begun his
What are the salient lessons here? First, Schlesinger's personal tribute
to Bourgin's patience and courage should be underscored. "I think
that your own spirit amidst these tribulations, especially given the added
complication of your own infirmity, has been truly admirable," the
historian remarked, in a private letter Bourgin rightfully cherishes.
"It would be easy to understand if you had given way to bitterness,
but you have remained generous and stalwart, and I salute you." Second,
Schlesinger's assessment of the tragedy implicit in the situation should
be repeated. "It is a great sadness that [your impressive dissertation]
did not receive the recognition it should have had.... Nothing can really
repair the changes imposed on your life, but I am more pleased than I
can say that the University of Chicago has confessed error and plans to
award the belated degree."3 And finally, and above all else, Dr.
Bourgin's own assessment of his struggle should never be forgotten. "While
I have been inclined to being 'upbeat' and active and making the most
of my new life in business and later in government, there was never a
time when I did not regret [not] being able to spend my life at teaching
and writing," he noted wistfully, conveying his impressions in a
reflective letter after reading the first edition of this book. "I
get letters now from former students of the 1930s, and I just know that
I was an effective teacher. I can indeed commiserate with the thousands
who were taken in by the 'Ph.D. Trap' and wasted their years." Consistently
philosophical, he calmly offered his own maxim concerning what life had
brought him. "It's a sound rule, isn't it, not to expect this world
to be as just as we would want it."4
Amplification: the U.S.A.
Strikingly atypical though Dr. Bourgin's experience might seem to some,
especially those advocating the academic status quo, in at least one important
respect it has proved far more than symbolically representative. Over
the decades of his lonely quest for scholarly recognition, the average
span of time consumed in successful completion of the doctorate has relentlessly
lengthened throughout the entire westernized world. A definitive American
report on the duration of doctoral programs has done much to establish
that fact conclusively. Based on 29,991 responses to a survey of the 32,278
persons earning doctorates at American universities during 1987, a statistical
sample reaching an unprecedented 93% of the target group, the Summary
Report 1987: Doctoral Recipients from United States Universities demonstrates
that "the time spent in completing a doctoral degree in the United
States has been rising steadily for nearly 20 years." Placing the
data of their survey within the context of results obtained from earlier
studies, the National Research Council investigators maintained that "the
increase in time-to-degree should be an issue for all those interested
in doctorate 'production'."5 Central to their analysis is the concept
of "Median Age at Doctorate," defined as the age at or before
which one-half of the successful candidates in a given field of study
received the degree. Ranging from a low of 29 years in Chemistry to a
high of 39.8 years in Education,6 these statistics sketch out a profile
of an increasingly aging intellectual elite, a cadre of experts just beginning
their professional careers when many of their most productive days have
already elapsed. Remember, the "Median Age at Doctorate" is
necessarily also an age beyond which the other half of the successful
candidates in a given field had already lived! Dr. Bourgin's adventure
is thus far less of an anomaly than most educators would care to believe.
Unmistakably delineated in the NRC analysis is a statistical profile we
will encounter repeatedly in various configurations throughout this book:
the numbers, in this instance years of "time lapse" in graduate
study from completing the baccalaureate to earning the doctorate, are
"clearly field-related." To gauge this time lapse, the NRC used
two different measures: registered time-to-degree (RTD), counting only
the years a recipient was actively enroled at graduate school, a net span;
and total time-to-degree (TTD), counting all the years a recipient spent
between completing the baccalaureate and earning the doctorate, a gross
span. Overall, "by either dimension, time-to-degree has increased
approximately 30 percent over the last 20 years." Significant though
this might be, it is the variation between broad fields of study that
truly astonishes. In the physical sciences, an RTD of 5.1 and a TTD of
6.0 years in 1967 had increased to an RTD of 6.0 and a TTD of 7.4 years
by 1987. In the social sciences, an RTD of 5.2 and a TTD of 7.7 years
in 1967 had swollen to an RTD of 7.2 and a TTD of 10.3 years by 1987.
And in the humanities, an RTD of 5.5 and a TTD of 9.4 years in 1967 had
ballooned to an RTD of 8.4 and a TTD of 12.0 years by 1987. As the subject
moves from the physical sciences through the social sciences and thence
to the humanities, from the more objective to the more subjective disciplines,
the span of time expended both in school and off campus lengthens significantly.
By 1987, although the program was demanding years more from everyone,
many candidates in the humanities were devoting roughly half again as
much time to the acquisition of a doctorate as a candidate in the physical
Those statistics initially hit home to the academic community with considerable
force. "University administrators agree the trend is troubling,"
the 15 March, 1989 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
"The lengthening time to a doctoral degree, they say, can deter undergraduates
from considering doctoral study, can demoralize those already enroled
in graduate school, and represents an inefficient use of campus resources."7
Such admissions were far too little, far too late, and far too ineffectual
for reform-minded thinkers, many of them scientists impatient with a tradition-ridden
structure consuming years in elaborate exercises. The 29 March, 1989 issue
of The Chronicle of Higher Education went on to delineate one of the more
radical proposals, the elimination of the time-devouring final research
dissertation that constitutes the cornerstone of the existing program.
Arguing that "doctorates in some fields should be awarded on the
basis of published journal articles, rather than one massive work on a
single topic," the reformers contended that "changes in disciplines,
particularly in the sciences, are forcing reconsideration of the traditional
dissertation."8 Nevertheless, any such development was bound to encounter
resistance from humanists who "still follow the old Germanic magnum
opus format;"9 and most commentators gloomily conceded that the debate
would go nowhere as objections and counter-arguments proliferated. The
status quo would prevail, simply because there was yet again not sufficient
general consensus for major modifications.
Undeterred, the NRC investigators pressed on with their own deliberations.
Focusing on engineering and the physical sciences, the disciplines where
the program seems to be functioning with the least inefficiency, they
continued to emphasize the potential hazards of ignoring what the statistics
implied. In the opening pages of the 1990 sequel On Time to the Doctorate:
A Study of the Lengthening Time to Completion for Doctorates in Science
and Engineering, they sketched out a range of awkward possibilities. First,
the very competitive and constantly shifting commercial markets in these
disciplines require the training of professionals with a minimal loss
of time: hence, "lags in supply responsiveness are costly to society."
Second, lengthy programs mean increased costs, lower returns and decreased
time in gainful employment for the candidates: hence, such considerations
might well "discourage students from pursuing training at the doctoral
level." Moreover, lengthy programs increase the likelihood that some
students might be forced "to drop out before completing their degrees."
And finally, and most depressingly, lengthy programs "other things
equal, may reduce productivity by reducing the number of years spent by
cohorts of newly-produced degree holders working as doctorates."10
All that said, the prospects for immediate change were not encouraging.
Even in these most progressive disciplines, "the literature suggests
it is now taking longer to complete a doctorate than at any other time."
Worse still, the NRC investigators predicted, "in the near future,
it will take even longer for doctoral candidates to complete their degrees."11
But it did not take long for the more conservative professorial spokesmen
to attempt an establishment riposte. In 1992, the very prestigious Princeton
University Press published In Pursuit of the PhD, a massive undertaking
jointly executed by William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine. Two of the
most respected academics of their generation, the one a former head of
the Mellon Foundation and the other a former president of Yale University,
they together radiate urbanity, sophistication and professional confidence.
Their tone is balanced and reasonable, their attitude one of earnest endeavor.
They begin auspiciously, by acknowledging the gravity of the situation
in contemporary higher education: graduate education in the United States
"enjoys enormous prestige and yet is relatively unexamined and not
carefully monitored;" worse still, it is extremely difficult "to
obtain answers to even the most elementary questions" concerning
what occurs in these programs; and, worst of all, perhaps one of the most
glaring instances of that difficulty can be seen in the hesitant and imprecise
reckoning of "the long and uncertain duration of doctoral study."12
However, these experts hasten to advise, don't worry, be happy. Take those
damning NRC longevity statistics with a measure of caution, for "the
time spent by the typical graduate student in earning a doctorate has
risen in the last two decades, but much less dramatically than is generally
believed." The two senior academics insist that the NRC method of
reporting data incorporates a "statistical bias" yielding "a
misleading picture of reality:" but after convoluted consultations
with other statisticians, surprise, surprise. The application of "correct"
techniques reveal that "time-to-degree has increased relatively modestly."
The numbers "properly measured" would seem to suggest that "time-to-degree"
has increased "by about 10 percent over the last 20 years, rather
than by 30 percent as widely reported." No cause for serious alarm,
even though "any increase is cause for concern, simply because time-to-degree
in the arts and sciences is already too long." After all, everyone
should reflect that "lengthy time-to-degree is a problem with old
(and deep) roots; it is not a new phenomenon."13
This flourish of scholarly legerdemain is representative of the establishment
faculty defense of the establishment graduate schools. By quibbling over
the validity of the NRC findings, Bowen and Rudenstine might deflect attention
away from the full gravity of what has evolved in our westernized higher
education, redirecting analysis into endless hair-splitting over arcane
abstract manipulations of existing data. And their own contribution to
those arguments, offered throughout the book and summarized remorselessly
in Appendix D, "Reinterpretation of the Evidence," is something
of a doozy. The reader's eyes glaze, the reader's mind numbs, as page
after page of theoretical assumptions illustrated by graphs, tables and
calculus-style equations fuzz and blur while elaborating the contention
that "the case for concluding that TTD has risen dramatically"
is "a serious error."14 However, what on earth is actually accomplished
here? The point itself is of minimal relevance, since (no matter how computed)
the problem of lengthy program duration does indisputably exist and anyhow
remains an issue of considerable concern. And rather than mathematical
showmanship, as Appendix D finally concedes, we just need more comprehensive
statistics: "there are no national data on [all-encompassing] completion
rates, because such data can be collected only if determined efforts are
made to follow the careers of all entrants to a graduate program, including
those who drop out."15 Most tellingly, that had not been done, anywhere
in the westernized world at the time the book appeared. And it has only
slowly and hesitantly begun since then, a process still retarded by the
tendency of academics to fiddle about with figures the entire intellectual
community recognizes as inconclusive. Meanwhile, the doctoral program
continues to grind inexorably along, still much as traditionally structured,
because we have again been reassured by respected experts that alarmist
doctoral statistics could be in "serious error."
For the record, then, let it be noted that the NRC investigators have
quite properly disregarded this sort of qualifying objection. As Bowen
and Rudenstine themselves admitted, the Doctorate Records File of the
NRC constitutes "a remarkable database" proving "a veritable
treasure-trove" of information on those successfully completing doctorates
over the past seven decades in the United States.16 Following the publication
of In Pursuit of the PhD, the NRC statisticians did indulge in some minor
tweakings of their data: nevertheless, as the Summary Report 1995: Doctoral
Recipients from United States Universities demonstrates, the results from
the program have not improved over the better part of a decade. If anything,
they have become marginally worse, with attainment times in the physical
sciences and social sciences displaying a distressing tendency to increase
towards the completely unacceptable levels of those in the humanities.
In the physical sciences, the RTD of 6.0 and the TTD of 7.4 years in 1987
had climbed again to an RTD of 6.9 and a TTD of 8.4 years by 1995. In
the social sciences, the RTD of 7.2 and the TTD of 10.3 years in 1987
had inched ahead to an RTD of 7.5 and a TTD of 10.5 years by 1995. And
in the humanities, the RTD of 8.4 and the TTD of 12.0 years in 1987 remained
stalled at those depressing levels by 1995.17 Here, it is worth remarking
upon developments in education, the one field with the worst total attainment
times in the survey. Posting an RTD of 8.2 and a TTD of 19.9 years by
1995, the number of doctorates awarded to educators declined by 2.8 percent
since 1985.18 Surely, this might reasonably be deemed a portent for the
future, if our universities continue to resist proposals for intelligent
Amplification: Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere
Intimidating statistics of this nature are consistent wherever the North
American doctorate has taken root, indicating that the difficulties are
inherent to the program, rather than the society nurturing it. In Canada,
where the modern Ph.D. first flourished virtually unchanged from the United
States, the NRC results were anticipated with a Statistics Canada study
whose findings were summarized in an article by Dr. Max Von Zur-Muehlen
published early in 1978. Surveying data from every graduate school in
the country during the period between academic year 1969-70 and academic
year 1975-76, the Statistics Canada researchers estimated that the "normal
time" to a doctorate from a mastership was "five years"
in the humanities and social sciences, but only "three years"
in the physical sciences.19 Since the mastership itself exacted at least
an additional two years of graduate study, these figures conformed reasonably
well to those from the United States during the same era. Not surprisingly,
then, a similar conformity was evident in 1988, when the Canadian Association
for Graduate Studies acknowledged a sharply increasing longevity in all
doctoral programs. Quoting the Association's findings, the March, 1988
edition of University Affairs reports "four to six years for science
and engineering students to complete PhDs, and an average of 10 years
for humanities and social science students."20 That admission, based
on data provided to the Association through the nation's graduate schools,
might well have been prompted by an impatient rebuke from the Science
and Technology Committee of the Canadian Manufacturers Association, itself
released two years earlier. Complaining that "the time to achieve
both masters and doctorate degrees has significantly lengthened,"
producing a "substantially longer time frame" of accumulated
graduate study, the CMA Committee tartly insisted in their working paper
that "we now have many students in university who should be practising
their profession in industry, academia or elsewhere." The waste of
time and talent is patently unacceptable, for "these people constitute
a vital resource for the renewal of science and technology," and
"they could be making a far greater contribution to our needs if
they were practising rather than completing their training."21
The CMA Committee's perceptions and concerns were widely shared, especially
among observers from outside academe. In Great Britain, the Conservative
government of Margaret Thatcher, angered with the unproductive nature
of doctoral studies, soon confirmed that significant difficulties do indeed
exist. By 1986, an investigative committee chaired by Dr. Graham Winfield
had filed a comprehensive report, focusing on doctoral students registered
in the social sciences. A survey of over two thousand candidates commencing
the program during the years 1976-80 inclusive, all with completed masterships
and all supported in their studies by the nation's Economic and Social
Research Council, revealed that overall only 4% of these adequately funded
and highly qualified students had submitted their dissertations in less
than three years. Worse yet, only some 24.8% overall had succeeded in
submitting their dissertations in less than five years. Most depressing
of all, however, was the fact that only half of the 491 who started in
1976 had submitted their dissertations within eight years. These figures,
Dr. Winfield commented grimly, "unequivocally demonstrate a low level
of performance and output in the Social Sciences;" moreover, "they
compare badly with the figures for the Natural Science Research Councils,
though they are more in line with those from the Humanities."22 Dr.
Winfield's findings were perfectly consistent with those of a major survey
conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development,
published in Paris in 1987. Commencing from the generally-held assumption
that a competent candidate doing a doctorate or its equivalent "should
be able to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills, carry out his/her
project, and write the results into an acceptable dissertation in 3-4
years of full-time study," the OECD researchers concluded laconically:
"this norm bears little relation to reality." In all the OECD
nations, "relatively few students succeed in obtaining their doctorates
within this period:" furthermore, "irrespective of country,
the situation seems typically to be more serious...in some fields than
in others." The prevailing pattern, analyzed in greater detail in
Sweden than elsewhere, is what commentators have come to expect: "the
time taken to complete doctoral training has been increasing through the
1970s, and especially in the social sciences and humanities."23
As in the United States, little has changed for the better since then.
A study entitled Organization and Administration of Graduate Programs,
published in 1995 under the direction of Dr. Edward A. Holdaway as principal
investigator, conveyed the findings obtained from detailed interviews
and questionnaires directed chiefly at senior academic personnel: deans,
coordinators of programs, experienced supervisors. While the primary emphasis
was on programs in Canada, the study also drew upon responses from institutions
elsewhere in the westernized world: the U.S.A., the U.K., Australia and
Sweden. And in general, once again, the Canadian respondents "all
commonly stated that completion time is often too long." While "considerable
variability occurs among departments," one constant stood out dramatically:
"the humanities were often identified as having a particular problem."
In Australia, "the natural sciences (including biological sciences),
engineering, economics and medicine tended to have the shortest time-to-completion."
A similar profile prevailed in the United Kingdom, with one respondent
rather candidly acknowledging that the Science and Engineering Research
Council had been "under pressure to show value for money," adding
that the organization "uses [dissertation] submission rates as an
indicator of productivity."24 Pressures of that sort, however, were
meeting with some resistance. "One British university," Holdaway
and his colleagues noted, "has experienced increasing percentages
of students who have to revise substantially after quick submission."
Yet talk of "the straight-jacket of time," the usual prefatory
rhetoric accompanying legitimate questions about whether or not "faster
completion should be forced,"25 cannot bode well for significant
institutional reform: if the universities successfully discount time-to-degree
as an issue to be meaningfully addressed, the programs will continue on
much as before, ensnaring candidates in their exercises until well into
This is a process that can only get worse. The Holdaway study suggests
another alarming trend: the tendency for graduate studies at the mastership
level to stretch out, which can only further extend the already torturous
path to the doctorate. In the estimation of the Canadian graduate coordinators,
a mastership in science could take somewhere between 1.71 to 4.03 years,
with a mean at 2.53 years. In arts, the corresponding figures are somewhere
between 1.54 and 4.17 years, with a mean of 2.45 years. And in the fine
arts, the corresponding figures are somewhere between 2.25 and 4.39 years,
with a mean of 3.05 years.26 Such a prolongation of the preliminary graduate
program can help explain the profile of increasing age among candidates
for the senior degree. In 1992-93, according to data from Statistics Canada,
there were 3,401 full-time Canadian doctoral students enroled in the humanities,
4,360 in the social sciences, and 9,129 in the natural sciences and engineering.
Their ages ranged from under 24 to over 50 in all three areas of study:
however, the distribution varied considerably, depending on the discipline.
In the humanities, the elderly dominated: only 3% were under 24; 31% were
between 25 and 29; another 28% were between 30 and 34; 16% were between
35 and 39; 10% were between 40 and 44; 6% were between 45 and 50; and
a surprising 4% were actually in their second half-century. In the social
sciences, the statistics followed a similar pattern; but in the natural
sciences and engineering, the younger were more prevalent. There, 5% were
under 24; 44% were between 25 and 29; 32% were between 30 and 34; 13%
were between 35 and 39; only 4% were between 40 and 44, and a mere 1%
were older than 45.27 It is important, however, to reflect that these
are the ages of people enroled that academic year only: there is no indication
of how many more years each of these individuals had to consign to a completion
of the degree. Truly, even in the sciences and engineering, let alone
the other disciplines, the senior degree stands in peril of becoming another
certification of the senior citizen.
The insufficiency of these unfortunate developments can be rendered even
more stark by comparison with other professional qualifications administered
and awarded through the universities. The degrees of doctor of medicine,
bachelor of laws, bachelor of architecture and bachelor of engineering
are conferred upon practitioners entrusted with some of the gravest responsibilities
of our place and time. The care and healing of the sick, the regulation
of justice, the sound and tasteful design of buildings, and the safe,
economical and practical construction of systems providing transportation,
water supply, industrial production and waste disposal: these are objectives
easily as consequential to society as the instruction of university students
or the apprenticeship to scholarly research. Nonetheless, candidates pursuing
the academic requirements for these endeavors attain their certification
far faster and far more effectively than their contemporaries seeking
Although national regulations governing the licensing of these professionals
can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and very often in disconcerting
ways, those recently pertaining in the Canadian province of Ontario are
still reasonably typical of contemporary westernized life. And there,
in 1994-95, it took a duly qualified freshman student four years of preliminary
medical instruction and one to three years of specialized postgraduate
residency training in one of 61 certification programs to proceed with
the practice of medicine. Similarly, it took such a candidate three years
of university preparation, three years of law instruction, one month of
practice skills session, one year of articling and three more months of
instruction to gain admission to the legal bar. Again, it took such a
candidate five years of university instruction, three years of work experience
and two sets of professional practice exams to be registered with the
Canadian Architectural Certification Board. And it took such a candidate
four years of university instruction and satisfaction of engineering accreditation
requirements to be registered with the Association of Professional Engineers.
In short, a period of somewhere between six and eight years after high
school would suffice to produce a practicing doctor, lawyer, architect
or engineer.28 Why could it not also suffice to produce a practicing professor
or research specialist?
In theory, it could. According to calendar specifications at most of our
universities, it would take a duly qualified freshman student four years
to complete a baccalaureate with honors, a year or two thereafter to earn
a mastership in the field of specialization, and two or three years after
that to get a doctorate. Seven to eight years, perhaps a little more,
in theory. But harsh reality, as the OECD researchers and others have
pointed out, is quite another matter. The university calendars tend to
minimize the awkward implications of the fact that only the bachelor's
phase of this process is fixed in terms of course stipulations and time
necessary for completion. Unlike the requirements for the M.D., the LL.B.,
the B.Arch., or the B.Eng., which compel completion in accordance with
stated courses and time frames, the requirements for each of the graduate
degrees are extremely flexible and range widely. They shift about from
country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, institution to institution,
department to department, and even candidate to candidate. In truth, what
one candidate must do to obtain either the mastership or doctorate in
any field at any university will always be substantially different from
what another candidate in the same department and program must do to obtain
the same degree during the same time. That is because each candidate must
work under a different supervisory committee, and nobody has either the
expertise or the authority to coordinate what all those different committees
are doing. The outcome is an administrative chaos that often generates
frustrations, delays and career-destroying obstacles.
The tenured professoriate, of course, is understandably reluctant to contemplate
the disquieting realities implicit in the numbers. As a result, in nation
after nation, the tenured professoriate strains collectively to place
the responsibility for every infelicity upon some other party. The scapegoats,
inevitably, are either governments or the students themselves: governments,
for underfunding the universities, which (it should be noted) spend the
largest single percentage of their budgets on professorial salaries; and
students, for lacking motivation or money, resources essential (it should
also be noted) either to comply with professorial dictates or to augment
professorial stipends. Bowen and Rudenstine effectively undercut such
rationalizations, however, with their own sets of data. Their study is
concentrated upon the most qualified students with the highest levels
of scholarship support at the most distinguished and generously-endowed
graduate schools: Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago,
Cornell, Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina. And yet, even with these
well-funded and carefully selected students working under the best-paid
and most prominent academic professionals, there is no significant change
from what was occurring elsewhere. In the six illustrative programs selected,
English, History, Political Science, Economics, Physics and Mathematics,
no heartening deviations could be cited from the depressing norm of other
American graduate schools. "Completion rates have been surprisingly
low (given the quality of the students chosen and the financial support
provided)," Bowen and Rudenstine glumly remarked, "and it has
taken nearly as long for the recipients to complete their degrees as it
has taken other graduate students."29 Obviously, then, it is reasonable
to look elsewhere than the students and their funding for factors causing
those unacceptable results.
Yes, but don't count on it. Faculty resistance to a considered reappraisal
of institutional factors responsible for unproductive graduate programs
should never be underestimated. Homer C. Rose, assistant dean for graduate
studies at the University of Michigan, offered some thoroughly typical
professorial sentiments while commenting on the 1987 NRC findings in the
15 March, 1989 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. "It's
really not a bad life," he breezily declared, speculating that candidates
have deliberately been prolonging their studies across the past two decades
because job prospects were weak. "You're kind of poor, but you still
interact with the faculty and your peers, and it's better than the prospect
of being locked out of academia entirely or having a one-year appointment
at Rattlesnake Junior College."30 Job prospects had not been weak
for much of the period surveyed by the NRC, but tenured professors are
adept at disregarding inconvenient history. Rather than confront the facts
of their own performance, most specifically the sorry track record of
their own teaching accomplishments, those snug in the haven of tenure
much prefer to float hypotheses in the style of Dean Rose: middle-aged
graduate students chose to linger in academic servitude, scrounging for
research or teaching assistantships, piling up ever-increasing debt, and
mindlessly squandering their most active years, all simply because they
are enjoying themselves. The analysis has about the same intellectual
substance as that offered by the fishmonger's wife in Boswell's Life of
Johnson, replying to the gentleman protesting the cruelty of skinning
eels alive. "Don't fret yourself about it, sir, they're used to it."
More and more frequently, therefore, observers outside academe are becoming
intolerant of flimsy evasions along such lines. The CMA Committee expressed
widespread discontent as they brusquely swept aside the canon of professorial
apologia. "Many excuses are advanced to explain this [situation],"
they snorted: "but we have seen few, if any, of these excuses which
stand the test of rational examination."31 Confronted with challenges
as direct as these, some academics are now grudgingly beginning to admit
that, yes indeed, perhaps certain institutional factors might be involved.
Hedged round with vagueness and evasion though those concessions inevitably
are, they still mark progress of a sort. After their annual meeting in
1988, when the Canadian graduate school deans stressed the "excessive
and increasing time" spent in graduate study, they began by urging
the same threadbare faculty remedies of increased funding and more stringent
student regulations. Faculty members should "lobby to strengthen
internal fellowship, scholarship, loan and bursary programs, and inform
and require students and supervisors to apply for all available external
awards," University Affairs reported, without remarking on the irony
that all such activities would seem to fall under the authority of the
graduate deans themselves. And faculty members should further "make
present regulations concerning deadlines, programs and procedures known
to every student, supervisor and academic unit at appropriate intervals,"
again a responsibility that would seem to fall under the authority of
the deans. But last on the list, couched in the most cautious language,
the deans also exhorted faculty members to "tailor degree demands
to the length of time during which a fellowship-quality student can reasonably
be expected to finish before the fellowship runs out."32 Bingo! Here,
the deans are no longer dodging their duty: here, albeit with the greatest
circumspection (and, let it be added, with the greatest of trepidation)
they are beginning to address the core difficulty. In academia, this is
progress. Progress of a sort.
Yet given such glacial faculty movement, governments and other funding
agencies are contemplating and even implementing far more draconian measures
to push at the pace. In England, where doctoral candidates in the social
sciences were most deeply mired in the procedural slough, the Economic
and Social Research Council took the unprecedented step of blacklisting
fourteen institutions from receiving doctoral research scholarships for
1986 and 1987. "Between them, the fourteen received over 120 Ph.D.
studentships in 1979 and 1980 and include some of the main social science
research training centres," the 1 November, 1985 edition of The Times
Higher Education Supplement announced: "University College London
and Liverpool University, for example, both had recorded over twenty Ph.D.
starts in those two years, but have so far  recorded only one [dissertation]
submission apiece."33 The ESRC action was extended to other institutions
in subsequent years, and additional punitive tactics were employed by
the Conservative government to link funding with academic performance.
Despite "howls of protest from academics," steps like these
have undeniably "produced dramatic results," argues the 25 December,
1993/ 7 January, 1994 edition of The Economist. "Thanks to a vigorous
use of penalties against departments with low submission rates, for instance,
the proportion of British PhD students completing their theses within
four years has soared...."34 Public approbation along these lines
will continue to dominate public policy. Notwithstanding faculty fears
and denunciations of the direction of such supposedly indiscriminate reforms,
all universities throughout the westernized world had better pay attention.
Beyond any question, either the institutions will competently reform themselves,
or have reform of some description anyhow imposed on them.
To guide the inevitable process of reform, interested parties would be
well advised to begin with the history of the program. In sharp contrast
to the degrees in medicine and law, which trace their development directly
back through the intellectual traditions of Europe to the founding of
the great medieval universities, the doctor of philosophy degree is very
much an intellectual Johnny-come-lately. While it also has antecedents
in the European traditions, its development to its modern form is essentially
an American phenomenon, deriving much of its strength and appeal from
elements characteristic of educational movements in the United States
over the past two centuries. Associated at its origin with the sweep of
scientific technology across this vast continent, the degree soon became
linked with the more attractive values of American culture: vitality,
ingenuity, practicality and broadness of scope. To grasp this point is
to realize something of how the degree escaped sustained critical scrutiny
for so long. In essence, scholars, institutions and society at large all
accepted it as it seemed to be, rather than as it was. And truly, the
disappointment of the doctorate is not that it set out to embody those
positive American values, but that it ultimately failed to do so.
Whereas the promise of the doctorate is interwoven with its American origin,
the reasons for its failure to achieve that promise are far more universal.
First in the United States, then in Canada, and finally in England and
even on the European continent and elsewhere, the degree encountered the
same obstacles to its full and proper realization. Despite its original
designation and continuing service as a research qualification, individual
and institutional vanities have united to make it the mandatory teaching
certificate for university undergraduate instruction, thereby annually
attracting into the program thousands of people with interests other than
research. Worse still, as a singular instance of academic circularity,
the need to prepare doctoral candidates for undergraduate instruction
has resulted in encumbering the program with features incompatible with
research. And worst of all, the comparative success of the program in
the sciences has led to the adoption of the program in all the other major
disciplines, most of which lack the methodological resources to realize
its potential. The combination of these factors over a century of rapid
academic expansion in the westernized world has pushed the doctorate towards
inefficiency, inequity and inflexibility, at the very time it has attained
paramountcy as the indispensable academic distinction.
Viewed from this perspective, though, the current difficulties with the
program hardly appear unresolvable. Unable to refute or dismiss the constantly
increasing body of evidence that doctoral training is needlessly complex,
ineffectual and unproductive, the universities may finally elect to move
with the impetus for reform, rather than be directed by it. Part of the
process should focus on the various professional and personal vested interests
that threaten to inhibit satisfactory reform. Another part of the process
should focus on the ever-heightening fascination with scholarly methodology
throughout the academic community, which must continue to raise questions
concerning the suitability of the doctorate to research in many disciplines.
And still another part of the process should focus on the as-yet unexamined
premise that the doctorate provides the best preparation for undergraduate
teaching, a doubtful premise considering the teaching attainments of those
thus prepared so far. Out of the ensuing analysis and debate, a consensus
could emerge on the most desirable modifications to the system, and the
universities will enter one more phase of their continuing evolution.
It has all happened so many times before.
The message of this study, which might otherwise be taken as critical
and negative, is actually in summation both constructive and positive.
Our primary intellectual institutions sorely require a revitalizing overhaul,
particularly in the humanities and social sciences: the necessity is accentuated
by analyzing attrition from the doctorate, by sketching the almost Byzantine
history of the doctorate, by describing the manifold academic pressures
retarding development of the doctorate, and by outlining the various traditions
influencing the doctorate. But the program itself not only can and will
change, it has already begun to do so: the point is made by citing existing
alternatives to the existing structure, and by delineating some of the
factors hastening a recourse to those alternatives. This book is a plea
for an intensive scrutiny of all the relevant considerations, that we
might strive together to turn what is coming into a better thing. In seeking
the spiritual exhilaration that creative innovation alone can instil,
we conduct ourselves so that our posterity might regard us with the same
respect we rightly accord the finest of our forebears. And scholarship
can furnish no more fitting reward.
Frank P. Bourgin, "12 Page Story," unpublished typescript prepared
for family, friends and media, April-May, 1988, pp.3-8.
2 Ibid., 9-11.
3 Arthur Schlesinger, jr. to Frank P. Bourgin, private letter, 26
4 Frank P. Bourgin to Wilfred Cude, private letter, 17 May, 1988.
5 Susan L. Coyle and Dolores H. Thurgood, Summary Report 1987: Doctoral
Recipients From United States Universities (Washington, D.C.: National Academy
Press, 1989), p.29.
6 Ibid., 52-3.
7 Jean Evangelaue, "Lengthening of Time to Earn a Doctorate
Causes Concern," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 15, 1989,
8 Peter Monaghan, "Some Fields Are Reassessing the Value of
the Traditional Doctoral Dissertation," The Chronicle of Higher Education,
March 29, 1989, p.A1.
9 Ibid., A16.
10 Howard Tuckman, Susan L. Coyle and Yupen Bae, On Time to the Doctorate:
A Study of the Lengthening Time to Completion for Doctorates in Science
and Engineering (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1990), p.5.
11 Ibid., 13.
12 William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine, In Pursuit of the PhD
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p.xv.
13 Ibid., 105.
14 Ibid., 349.
15 Ibid., 358.
16 Ibid., 5.
17 Peter H. Henderson, Julie E. Clarke and Mary A. Reynolds, Summary
Report 1995: Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities (Washington,
D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996), p.13.
18 Ibid., 7.
19 Max Von Zur-Muehlen, "The Ph.D. Dilemma in Canada Revisited,"
The Canadian Journal of Higher Education (February, 1978), p.79.
20 "Graduate deans unhappy about time taken to finish degrees,"
University Affairs, March, 1988, p.9.
21 Science & Technology Committee, "University Graduate
Training: Is the Pipeline too Long?" Discussion Paper: Canadian Manufacturers
Association (Ottawa: Canadian Manufacturers Association, August, 1986),
22 Graham Winfield et al., The Social Science PhD: The ESRC Inquiry
on Submission Rates (London: Economic and Social Research Council, 1987),
23 OECD Research Staff, Post-Graduate Education in the 1980s (Paris:
OECD Publications Service, 1987), p.44.
24 Edward A. Holdaway, Claude Dubois and Ian Winchester, Organization
and Administration of Graduate Programs (Edmonton: University of Alberta
Department of Educational Policy Studies, 1995), p.10-1.
25 Ibid., 10-2.
26 Ibid., 10-4.
27 Ibid., 5-5.
28 See the relevant calendars for the faculties of medicine, law,
architecture and engineering at the University of Toronto, 1994-95.
29 Bowen and Rudenstine, p.196.
30 Evangelaue, p.A14.
31 CMA Science & Technology Committee, p.2.
32 "Graduate deans unhappy about time taken to finish degrees,"
33 "ESRC cracks down on PhD rates," The Times Higher Education
Supplement, November 1, 1985, p.1.
34 "Towers of babble," The Economist, December 25, 1993
- January 7, 1994, p.74.
its possessors may say to the contrary, the North American
doctor of philosophy degree is not so much about scholarly
attainment as it is about power: sheer, naked, inexorable
economic and social power. Originally intended as the certificate
attesting specialized preparation for research in the major
let me stress at the very beginning, is designed to effect positive
change in a central academic institution now painfully and destructively
faltering. While nearly all the standard literature concerning our
contemporary university structure is unrelievedly laudatory,...