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Why Very Few People Need a Ph.D.

An acquaintance of mine once inquired concerning why I fairly often advise younger colleagues or family friends not to continue their education beyond a Masters degree unless they intend to teach.   In this issue, I offer a few observations below that are derived from several sources, including three years I spent as a mentor and community contributor to the American Educational Research Association Graduate Student List -- an Internet LISTSERV email distribution list for graduate students and academic instructors.  My Air Force background as a manager of advanced technology development also plays into my thinking here. 

First let us ask why somebody would want to have a Ph.D.? 

Answers for this question tend to fall into three categories:

-- To master a body of knowledge at a depth sufficient to understand underlying theory and practice for research that advances the state of the art.

-- To master a body of knowledge sufficiently to be able to teach it to others.

-- To establish oneself as a credible expert deserving of professional prominence, state licensure, or higher salary.

Then let us ask: why do only a few people actually need a Ph.D? 

To sum up my answer in a phrase, there are simply too many Ph.D. students chasing too few jobs that can fully employ their academic exposure -- and quite often pursuing graduate education for perceived reasons that run counter to their own best interests.

1. The labor marketplace doesn't need as many research specialists as existing Ph.D. programs recruit or graduate. Fewer than 5% of all US jobs are directly involved in basic research. The central needs of the labor market focus on application of knowledge and practice, not their creation. Thus, very many Ph.D. graduates will find themselves employed in positions that could be filled equally well by a person with an MA/MS degree plus two years of industry experience. Some employers actively discriminate against Ph.D. graduates, deeming them "over-qualified."

It is also quite debatable whether many courses taken by Ph.D. candidates contribute to a substantial knowledge of current practice. Large areas of practice simply aren't taught in University settings. We still don't teach most software coders how to do configuration management, or how to collaborate effectively in large development projects (on which most of them will work in "real life"). We don't teach most educators how to design an effective computer based training course. 

Most telling of all, the realities of the industrial workplace are quite different from research in the University. Although new industry processes and practices emerge every month, it is uncommon for such practices to be created by individuals. Enterprises are built and operated by groups. However, research collaboration between students has tended to remain anathema in the ivy-covered halls of academia.

In technical fields, problems of educational relevance are reflected in a growth of non-traditional and non-degree certification programs such as Microsoft Certified Network Engineer and various Novell training courses. Weaknesses of MBA curricula are also being addressed in certification programs operated under the Software Engineering Institute and the Program Management Institute. It is becoming widely recognized that to truly "master" a field of knowledge, the student may be required to study and work under supervision in some environment other than a University.

2. Except in the field of education itself, most Ph.D. programs offer little coursework in teaching methods.  Moreover, much of the theory studied in Ph.D. programs is outdated or simply not pertinent to current industry practice. This is particularly observable in rapidly advancing fields with high technology content. There is also a widely accepted validity behind an old clich´┐Ż: "them as can, does, while them as can't, teaches."  Particularly for students who pursue their entire University education in a continuous sequence, there is a tendency to absorb a body of largely non-relevant knowledge, and then to teach theory badly while earning a salary below that of better qualified professionals working in the general labor market. 

3. While a Ph.D. may be a required credential for credibility in some fields (e.g., physiology, medical research, public health policy, psychology, physics, materials engineering), it is not a sufficient condition for professional prominence or even acceptance. A substantial body of published work and a visible presence in professional associations and conferences are also required. While academics may have time to engage in such activities, working industry professionals have much less latitude. Industry professionals are often too busy doing the work, to report on it.

The economics of advanced degree training are also highly problematic. Economic return on educational investment is most often negative: over 50% of all Ph.D. program entrants in both education and technical fields will finish their coursework but will not receive the degree because they do not complete the dissertation project.  Some of the reasons behind the high failure rates in completing graduate education are troubling to an honest observer.  

To qualify before a thesis review committee, a paper must "make a substantial original contribution to knowledge." However, merely to locate and characterize the leading edges of published work, the student may need up to two years of research and reading. There is a tendency during this period, to "bore down" into ever more specialized niches of theory, seeking some subject small enough where an original paper can be written. 

Significantly, this work occurs largely in isolation from any peer group or professional mentor, creating opportunities for the student to drift into unproductive blind alleys or simply to miss some important detail in a little-known journal in some related field. A second and very real hazard of the research period is that isolation and mental overwork can compromise the emotional or mental health of the student, producing chronic depression and educational failure.

After research, the student must "invent something new," write a research paper, and defend the contribution before a dissertation committee. With thousands of students pursuing the leading edges of professional practice and theoretical knowledge, it should not be surprising that many if not most of them will fail to reach the goal in such a process. There simply isn't all that much "new" happening in the real world! Among those who nominally succeed in new work, the quality and originality of thesis work are also very frequently doubtful.  It is not accidental that only a tiny percentage of dissertation papers are ever published in other than academic circles. Most technical papers are practically unreadable as well as simply uninteresting beyond a narrow coterie of theorists. Many educators and practitioners of the liberal arts do little better. 

It would be reasonable for a reader of this critique to ask, "how might we fix the problem you outline?" My response has a few elements:

1. While it is not often explicitly acknowledged, Universities are in effect compromising the tenure system, by hiring significant numbers of part-time associate professors in contract positions. This trend will likely broaden, bringing non-academic working professionals into closer contact with returning mid-career students. The quality and relevance of curricula may benefit from this injection of talent, though it is doubtful that tenured faculty will lead the process.

2. It is widely recognized almost everywhere outside University academic senates, that the "publish or perish" dictum of tenure-track selection operates to decrease the quality of both fundamental research and student education conducted in a University setting. One method for improving the quality of both endeavors may be to establish separate career tracks for research professors working under industry grants, versus dedicated instructors working in close contact with students. It is practically impossible for one individual to do both kinds of work well -- there simply isn't enough time in the working day. Dual-track career development threads are widely and effectively used in both corporate and government sectors for technologists and program managers.  Why not in education?

3. To remain viable as educational institutions, Universities may be forced to embrace skill training as a legitimate educational objective, and skill courses as a revenue source.  Among the most essential skills for the present workplace are intellectual collaboration and teamwork. For many fields, University curricula that do not include coursework in group collaboration and project execution, should not be accredited by regional professional groups. Universities will likely also be forced to evaluate whether they should become hosts to skill certification programs such as the CNE -- or compromise their places as providers of qualified entrants to the real job market.

4.  If graduate schools are to regain relevance and productivity in providing the skills and talents needed in a modern industrial marketplace, then it seems likely that such institutions must soon confront a process that is extremely painful but very common in non-academic circles: downsizing. The large number of "all but degree" academic dropouts is a reliable indicator that colleges and universities have been guilty of a fundamental conflict of interest. Schools have actively recruited students (and student tuition) to support their tenured faculties and facilities, with little attention or concern for producing a consistent return on the educational investments of their customers -- students themselves. This arrangement seems unlikely to prove sustainable in an increasingly well informed student population. 

Whether we like the idea or not, education is itself a marketplace, subject to corrections when values become distorted. The conclusion is inescapable that values are indeed 'out of whack', when so many students fail to complete their programs.  I am one of those who see correction coming -- one that may be painful, given that change very often is. But educators can only lead this changeling tiger, follow in her wake, or get out of her way.  The beast has very sharp teeth. 

(c) Richard. A. Lawhern, Ph.D. 
March, 2002
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Footnote: The reader might well consider it ironic that the author signs this work with acknowledgment of a Ph.D. degree.  The author shares in such irony.  Unfortunately,  it tends to be the rule that any criticism of education is considered disqualified unless rendered by a professional peer.  And of course, academics can be very picky when it comes to selecting their peers.  Ask any tenure committee member.


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