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
did that degree do to you?
Education Review spring 2002 vol. 34, number 2, pages 67-73
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.
Credentials are at the core of higher education. A bachelor's degree or,
better yet, a doctorate are valuable to their possessors, while for universities
it is crucial to be able to award them. Indeed, without a government-protected
monopoly over the right to award degrees, universities would virtually
collapse. If any small business could grant Harvard or Oxford degrees,
what would be the point of having the real thing?
This question highlights the symbolic importance of degrees. If the main
value of studying at Harvard or Oxford were what was learned, then having
this learning certified with a degree would be superfluous. In reality,
degrees often become more important than the learning they are supposed
to represent. Why would a student cheat if the only purpose of enrolment
was learning? Take away the degrees and any other certification of attendance
or performance and possibly nine out of ten students would quit immediately.
Having an appropriate degree is essential for obtaining certain types
of jobs, most obviously in law and medicine but also in many other fields.
Prospective academics are usually expected to have PhDs, and a professor
without even an undergraduate degree is a rare specimen indeed, irrespective
of how much learning a person might have acquired independently. Universities
are at least consistent, dispensing "meal tickets" for other
occupations and expecting their own teachers to have them as well.
Marxists have analysed the role of schooling in the "reproduction
of the class structure," namely providing a way to maintain social
stratification that seems legitimate to everyone concerned. As near-universal
education through high school has become the expectation in many countries,
the task of legitimating economic inequality has increasingly fallen to
universities, with a first degree being expected for ever more occupations.
It is not hard to develop arguments against this trend, for example that
most learning in higher education is not relevant to the jobs for which
it is a prerequisite, that the quest for credentials undermines the intrinsic
motivation to learn, or that remaining in educational institutions for
so many years produces burnt out conformist students whose sparks of independence
and creativity were extinguished long ago.
Although academics are noted for their willingness to critically analyse
every sphere of endeavour, scrutiny of the credential system is unusual,
since it strikes at the heart of academics' status and privilege. One
of the most powerful critiques is Randall Collins' The Credential Society
(1979). Collins argued that little is learned in schools, with most learning
occurring on the job. Indeed, grades are not good predictors of subsequent
success in any occupation -- except academia. Collins argued that education
has not increased social mobility, since cultural goods, namely what it
takes to succeed in school, are passed from parents to children more readily
than economic and political resources. Educational stratification links
together the realms of material production and cultural domination, creating
a "sinecure society."
A few years earlier, Ronald Dore (1976) described the explosion of formal
education in Third World countries, mainly due to the role of credentials
in regulating entry into modern sector jobs. The enormous expansion of
the education system is a response to parent and student pressures, but
is highly wasteful when there are insufficient relevant jobs for graduates.
In late-developing countries, Dore found wide use of educational certificates
for occupational selection, massive inflation in qualifications and emphasis
on examinations at the expense of genuine learning. With higher education
today treated like a business with a large "export market" (Third
World students attending First World universities), Dore's critique seems
just as relevant as it was a quarter of a century ago.
Whereas deschoolers such as Ivan Illich (1971) received considerable public
attention in the 1970s, critics such as Collins and Dore have been largely
ignored. While there has long been soul-searching within academia, for
example over social irrelevance, declining standards, commercialism and
managerialism, it seldom focusses on credentials. Therefore it is worthwhile
looking at two recent books that zero in on this issue.
Wilfred Cude is a Canadian literary scholar who, as a result of his own
unpleasant experiences while trying to obtain a PhD, turned his critical
gaze on the degree. In 1987 he self-published The Ph.D. Trap and,
after updating and adding new material, found a commercial publisher for
The Ph.D. Trap Revisited, twice the size of the original (Cude,
2001). What exactly is the "trap" to which Cude refers? For
prospective PhD students, it is an incredibly long journey with no guarantee
of arrival. For US science PhD students in 1995, the average elapsed time
from beginning (after the previous degree) to end was 8.4 years, while
for humanities the average was an astounding 12.0 years. Years enrolled
and elapsed time for completed doctorates have both been steadily increasing
in the past several decades. Cude wants to warn potential students that
embarking on a PhD course may not be the best way to get ahead, especially
as many drop out along the way. Doctoral study is hazardous intellectually
as well, encouraging a narrow conformity through the dissertation topic
as well as acquiescence to supervisory demands and whims. This is useful
training in conformity. Why then should the PhD be the entry requirement
for undertaking innovative research and for teaching undergraduates?
The PhD, for Cude, is also a trap for society as a whole, given that enormous
social resources are devoted to training PhD students, with dubious returns.
He argues for validation of alternative career paths, such as second master's
degrees and teaching internships.
The Ph.D. Trap Revisited ranges much more widely than its title
would suggest. Cude examines the history of universities, early criticisms
of the doctorate and methodological conflicts within disciplines. He tells
the sad stories of research students who tried to challenge the way they
were treated and offers a few success stories of scholars whose work was
recognised and who obtained good academic jobs despite their lack of a
Cude's writing is engaging throughout, and even his harshest comments
are phrased elegantly. He gives special attention to the humanities, where
he is especially scathing. Acknowledging that science PhD graduates from
prestigious universities may have learned something and made a contribution
to knowledge, he says "A person with the Ph.D. in most areas of the
humanities or social sciences, however, especially when acquired from
any of the less prestigious universities of the United States, Great Britain,
or Canada, has probably demonstrated only tact, tenacity, and a high tolerance
for exotic cerebral sadomasochism. Such a person will probably not make
any contribution to the advancement of knowledge, and might well teach
in a manner deterring those who could." (p. 309). As Cude says, "Very
few tenured [academics] would trouble themselves over a book like this."
(p. 302). Who indeed would like to contemplate the possibility that the
years that they had toiled to obtain a PhD had been a wasteful and limiting
A different critique of credentialing is provided by Jeff Schmidt in Disciplined
Minds, a powerful dissection of professionals, with the chief charge
being that they are selected and moulded to have system-reinforcing attitudes,
thereby directing their creative energies to system-specified tasks, where
"the system" is the current set of power relationships in society.
Schmidt's first task is to show that professionals such as doctors, lawyers
and scientists are timid personally and politically. More specifically,
while they may take enlightened stands on distant social issues, they
are uncritical on the job, for example being against democratisation.
A key concept in Disciplined Minds is ideological discipline. Schmidt
argues that the training of professionals serves above all to make them
able and willing to operate within their employer's value system. In short,
professional training is a form of ideological indoctrination.
Schmidt, a physicist, gives many examples from scientific research. He
describes how scientists' curiosity is oriented in certain directions
by funding and job opportunities, for example research grants from the
military, yet researchers prefer not to acknowledge their service to external
goals. Schmidt says that researchers have "assignable curiosity,"
namely a willingness to orient their intellectual energies in whatever
direction funding might dictate. That makes them ideal intellectual tools
for those groups with power and money.
How do professionals become this way? Nearly half of Disciplined Minds
is devoted to selection of professionals. When students enter professional
training, many of them are optimistic and idealistic. On leaving they
are "pressured and troubled" (p. 120), willing to join occupational
hierarchies. Professional training has transformed the students' attitudes
-- and this transformation, Schmidt argues, is training's key role. He
gives special attention to examinations, with a case study of the PhD
qualifying examination. (The equivalent in the British system would be
the honours year.) The examination, Schmidt claims, is a social framework
endorsing the status quo. He shows this by looking at the exam as a whole,
at the collection of problems and at particular questions.
For example, often it's necessary to study earlier exam papers in order
to learn how to answer "trick" questions. By accepting this,
students submerge their natural curiosity in the field and learn to direct
their attention to problems set by teachers, however irrelevant or contrived.
In this way, the exam system favours those least critical of the status
While those familiar with quantum mechanics will enjoy his analysis of
a trick question on a qualifying exam, Disciplined Minds is not
at all a technical book, with examples from various professional fields
and long extracts from letters he has received from reflective students.
In professional training, there are some who drop out along the way. Indeed,
since professionals have high status and incomes, there are many more
who aspire to join the ranks than there are positions. If all those who
failed to make it became rebellious, the system of professional privilege
would be unstable. Schmidt accordingly spends time describing how losers
are "cooled out," by being led to believe that failure is their
own responsibility. In this, an ideal mechanism is an exam that is biased
-- especially in fostering conformity -- but appears nonpartisan.
Even more provocative than his analysis of professional selection is Schmidt's
advice on resistance. He draws on a US military antibrainwashing manual
to give hints on resisting professional indoctrination. He concludes the
book with a list of 33 suggestions for radical professionals, ranging
from encouraging colleagues to connect with radical organisations to refusing
self-identification as a professional.
For those seeking a radical critique of professions, Disciplined Minds
should be added to a select list including works by Collins (1979) and
Illich et al. (1977). In comparison with other studies, especially work
in the sociology of professions, Schmidt's book is far more hands-on.
He is a genuine radical insider telling what it's like and what you can
do about it.
In order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of both The
Ph.D. Trap Revisited and Disciplined Minds, it is useful to
compare the books on a number of fronts. What they have in common is an
acute awareness of the limitations of professional training, especially
the training of academics. They each draw attention to the way that research
degrees lead to conformism rather than creativity. They each point to
the conservativism of successful academics, at least within the academic
system. They each deplore the massive waste of talent as well as the destruction
of idealism in the credentialing process.
However, the purposes of their analyses are rather different. Cude's purpose
is to show the limitations of the PhD as a training mechanism, whereas
Schmidt's is the broader task of revealing how professionals become so
timid politically and intellectually. Cude's goal is reform of the PhD
system, whereas Schmidt seeks to encourage radical professionals to be
part of a wider process of egalitarian social change. Given these divergent
purposes, the commonalities in their criticisms of the credentialing process
Cude, a humanities scholar, writes in elegant essay style, drawing on
classic works in a discursive fashion in order to reveal the intellectual
continuities in critical perspectives on the PhD. Cude builds on earlier
critiques in order not to appear too radical himself. Schmidt, a scientist,
essentially has designed his own intellectual framework from first principles,
rather analogously to the way a theoretical physicist would start with
a set of equations (such as Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism)
and derive consequences. This makes Schmidt's work much more original,
but by the same token he does not situate it within the large literature
on the sociology of education and the sociology of professions (e.g.,
Collins, 1979; Larson, 1979), as well as works on the "new class"
or professional-managerial class (e.g., Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979;
Gouldner, 1979). For some readers that will be a weakness in Schmidt's
book, but perhaps his independence of earlier scholarship -- given that
he has read into these literatures but decided that they do not add to
his perspective -- are part of what it takes to produce such an original
Both authors focus on the North American experience, using frameworks
and examples close to their own experience. Credentials and professional
training are different elsewhere, to a greater or lesser degree. Readers
will need to use their judgement about how much of these critiques apply
in other systems.
Both Cude and Schmidt are fascinated by dramatic expressions of frustration
by disgruntled students and academics, giving examples of research students
who either committed suicide or killed their supervisors, or both. Both
authors look at the credentialing process from the point of the view of
the student and both are attuned to the enormous waste and frustration
involved, perhaps leading them to expect and notice those few cases where
frustration manifested itself as violent rage. Their books, in their own
ways, show why such rage is predictable. Perhaps the surprising thing
is that there is relatively little violence!
Whereas Cude's personal experiences led him to write his book, with Schmidt
the sequence was reversed. Employed as an editor at Physics Today
for 19 years, he was dismissed after his employer saw Disciplined Minds.
That's one provocative book!
It is hard to read these books without asking, "What did doing my
degrees do to me?" and becoming either defensive or self-satisfied.
Both Cude and Schmidt would like readers to ask the question and be self-reflective
but then to go out and do something about the problems. The credential
system is enormously powerful and is not going to change quickly. But
for those who want to be more aware and make a personal contribution to
change, these books are good places to start.
Collins, Randall (1979) The Credential
Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification,
Dore, Ronald (1976) The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification
and Development, Allen and Unwin.
Ehrenreich, Barbara and Ehrenreich, John (1979) "The professional-managerial
class," pp. 5-45 in Walker, Pat (ed.), Between Labour and Capital,
Gouldner, Alvin W (1979) The Future of Intellectuals and the
Rise of the New Class, Macmillan.
Illich, Ivan (1971) Deschooling Society, Calder and Boyars.
Illich, Ivan et al. (1977) Disabling Professions, Marion
Larson, Magali Sarfatti (1979) The Rise of Professionalism:
A Sociological Analysis, University of California Press.
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,...