Are doctorates worthwhile?
Australian Universities' Review
What did that degree do to you?
Re-visiting and Re-visioning
the Ph.D. Books
A publisher by principle
Are doctorates worthwhile?
Universities' Review Vol. 44, Nos. 1&2, 2001, pp. 37-38.
by Brian Martin
Brian Martin is an associate professor in Science,
Technology and Society at the University of Wollongong, in Australia.
He has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney.
The PhD is the accepted apprenticeship into research and has become a
prerequisite for academic jobs in most fields. But is it a good idea?
The negative view is that studying for doctorates wastes vast amounts
of time and effort, produces narrow-minded scholars and discourages recognition
of good teaching. Far from promoting research, according to this critical
view the doctorate is a serious brake on intellectual creativity.
These sentiments are seldom voiced publicly by academics, most of whom
have a vested interest in the doctoral system, having themselves obtained
PhDs and trained a succession of graduate students. So it is not surprising
that Wilfred Cude, author of this powerful exposé, is not a tenured
academic. A Canadian literary scholar, Cude has personal experience of
bias in the academic system. Being denied a PhD and a permanent job, he
has eked out a precarious career as a casual teacher, yet continuing to
do research. He self-published The Ph.D. Trap in 1987 and eventually
found a mainstream publisher for The Ph.D. Trap Revisited, which
is updated and double the size.
Cude opens his attack with some alarming statistics. In 1995 in the United
States, the average physical scientist PhD graduate had been enrolled
in graduate school for 6.9 years and chronologically had spent a total
of 8.4 years from beginning to end. For social sciences the figures were
7.5 and 10.5 years and for humanities 8.4 and 12.0 years. Over the previous
several decades, these figures had grown considerably. Cude notes that
in some fields, the average PhD graduate is nearly middle-aged, having
spent what should have been some of the most creative and productive years
in pursuit of a qualification of marginal intellectual value.
In Canada and the US, PhD candidates spend years in coursework and preparation
for qualifying examinations before undertaking a dissertation, making
the process longer than in Australia. Yet many Australian readers will
recognise the syndrome of the seemingly perpetual research student.
The waste involved in slow progress is one thing, but pales by comparison
with the wasted effort and disillusionment of those who drop out along
the way. Is there a better way?
Cude takes a broad view in examining the problems with the PhD. He surveys
the evolution of universities over the past couple of centuries, noting
how changes in training reflected economic, political and cultural influences.
He quotes eminent commentators, such as William James and Thorstein Veblen,
who were critical of the PhD in its very early days. He then turns his
attention to shortcomings among tenured academics, describing various
types of unethical behaviour. The most striking case is that of engineering
professor Valery Fabrikant of Concordia University who murdered four colleagues
in 1992. A subsequent investigation revealed various forms of inappropriate
behaviour and poor policy in the department and university. Fabrikant
was guilty but he operated in an environment of dubious ethics. Cude also
describes methodological conflicts in universities, such as Yale mathematician
Serge Lang's attack on prominent Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington
What does all this have to do with the PhD? Cude is trying to show that
the route to the doctorate is not just a matter of careful and conscientious
scholarship, but also involves traversing a political and ethical swamp,
due to improper behaviour and methodological confusion among academics,
who have enormous power over PhD students. Indeed, those intrepid graduate
students who challenge the decisions of their supervisors are in for a
rough ride indeed, as evidenced by the legal travails of University of
Toronto philosophy student Eric P. Polten, who possibly learned more law
than philosophy through his challenges to his advisory committee. Despite
having his dissertation published as a book in the Netherlands to laudatory
reviews, the committee refused to pass it. Other frustrated PhD students
have taken more drastic action, in a few cases murdering their supervisors.
On the positive side, Cude gives examples of scholars, such as economist
Kenneth Boulding, who have made seminal contributions despite never having
undertaken a PhD. Cude argues that, in terms of developing oneself intellectually,
a second master's degree may be better than a PhD. He is severely critical
of tenure as protecting non-productive time-servers, and favours internships
to support gifted teachers without doctorates.
The Ph.D. Trap Revisited is engagingly written and draws on a wide
range of relevant literature, such as Randall Collins' The Credential
Society (1979) and Bill Readings' The University in Ruins (1996),
indeed serving as a useful introduction to both classic and more recent
works in the genre of university criticism, especially criticism oriented
to the humanities.
What does Cude recommend? Here he can but offer advice, given the lack
of any movement for fundamental reform of higher education along his preferred
lines. To prospective PhD students, he advises caution and careful consideration
of alternatives, lest years be wasted on a futile and soul-destroying
quest. To those very few tenured academics who are willing to scrutinise
the PhD system, he recommends supporting reforms. To people outside the
university, he advocates action, because universities won't change on
their own: "while the best students shun the doctorate in the humanities
and social sciences, while many other good students are lured into frustration
and failure in those disciplines, and while the formal analysis of our
most urgent social, cultural and ethical problems passes more and more
into the hands of conformist and doctrinaire thinkers, the universities
will for the most part remain silent" (p. 310).
Cude goes easy on the sciences, accepting the PhD there as comparatively
benign. Yet a powerful critique can also be mounted against research degrees
in the sciences, as shown by Jeff Schmidt in Disciplined Minds (2000).
The Ph.D. Trap Revisited deserves attention because Cude, unlike
most of the other thousands of failed aspirants who are spit out by the
higher education system each year, retains his voice, and an eloquent
and measured one at that, with scarcely a hint of his personal struggles.
His critical commentary will be uncomfortable reading for many academics
who do not want to imagine that, except for good fortune, they might have
ended up in the academic scrap heap. It would be both courageous and honourable
to give a copy of the book to beginning PhD students. If they then decide
to proceed, at least they will do so with open eyes.
Collins, Randall (1979), The credential society:
An historical sociology of education and stratification, New York,
Lang, Serge (1998), Challenges, New York, Springer-Verlag.
Readings, Bill (1996), The university in ruins, Cambridge,
MA, Harvard University Press.
Schmidt, Jeff (2000), Disciplined minds, Lanham, MD, Rowman
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,...