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What’s in a PhD?
In mid-2017, Mary Yap Kain Ching, Malaysia’s deputy minister for higher education, announced her ministry was establishing a database to verify educators and others’ doctorates. That, Yap said, was because fake doctorates had become rampant in the country. Although she didn’t say it, an ever-growing list of parliamentarians has called themselves PhDs.
Across Asia and not just in Malaysia, that is an indication of aura around the title, which has led to a massive marketplace in fake degrees, ghostwriting of dissertations, and scams presenting honorary degrees to politicians, academics, business people, management consultants, and professional trainers.
Aside from the fraudsters, however, evidence indicates that a PhD is becoming more important for policy analysis positions within government, major international organizations, and large NGOs. Having said that, there appears to be a mismatch between PhD holders and job opportunities, with many graduates finding it extremely difficult to find a job.
There is a growing conflict between holding a doctorate, concerned with developing a personal framework about scientific or disciplinary investigation, analysis and understanding, and hands-on experience. Undertaking a PhD for so many years of study is not the only way to learn these skills.
Nothing is better than experience in developing personal mastery within a discipline. Academia itself has seen the issues with specialization and developed hybrids such as the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), which is an extension of an MBA, industrial PhDs that can be undertaken within the workplace, and PhD by publication.
Another alternative is life-long education where a person undertakes short certificate, diploma and graduate diploma courses that suit his or her career needs at the time. This approach can foster interdisciplinary thinking.
Many universities are promoting PhDs as a means for better employment opportunities, higher salaries, and a pathway to achieve an outstanding career. But for students who don’t already have a job or promise of a job, the reality is often very different where after graduation they are cast off and forgotten by the university concerned. Employment prospects are not as good as made out and there is a glut of PhD holders in many areas.
In the chase of the lucrative PhD market, some universities are breaching ethics through institutionalizing double standards. One of the biggest growth markets for doctoral candidates exists where Southeast Asian universities are sending their staff overseas to undertake their degrees. There are inter-university agreements where candidates from South East Asian universities are automatically passed no matter the standard according to sources.
Supervisors have been heavily criticized for exploiting PhD students. Supervision of postgraduate students is a very important KPI for academic promotion. Supervisors are able to produce many more academic papers as co-authors with their students, with little or no input. PhD students assist academics get research funding. PhD students make cheap assistants, lecturers, tutors, and researchers. Supervisors have been accused of taking credit for student ideas without giving the student any acknowledgement.
Research is full of dangers. Too often, research is repetitive, too situational, relevant to a very small cohort, or of marginal importance. Some supervisors and students don’t fully understand the principles of sampling, statistical analysis, and the weaknesses of instrumentation. There are errors of reasoning in developing a general research project design. There is a general bias towards quantitative analysis, which often ignores the value of qualitative research. There are many fallacies and misconceptions about the way problems are defined, sampling, analysis, and interpretation.
Is a PhD worth it? Yes, if undertaking a PhD is part of a journey to an academic and/or research career. This is especially the case for those already employed. If not, getting a job will require more than the PhD. It’s a matter of who you know or who you can get to know. This requires being seen through networking and perhaps being published not just in academic journals, but the industry media as well.
Whether or not you do a PhD is about weighing out the costs versus the benefits. What are you going to achieve from a PhD? What is the opportunity cost of further study versus gaining more work experience? Can you work by yourself for long periods of time singly focused on one thing? Do you have the passion for it and will you be able to keep motivated? Do you have the financial resources?
Doctoral study can be extremely stressful, with a dropout rate of around 40 percent. Those who do quit end up with nothing. Being a mature person with experience is an advantage, but this also depends upon family commitments and responsibilities.
If you are pursuing a PhD for the love of research (and many do), then look at alternatives such as writing a book which provides wider latitudes than the set dissertation format within the PhD process.
A PhD doesn’t guarantee a top achiever, brilliance, creativity, a good communicator or team player. A PhD shows that someone has the discipline and is prepared to do the hard work on a long-haul project. The irony is that most dissertations may only ever be read by a select few people.
Universities within the Southeast Asian region are short-changing themselves with their requirement to employ only PhD holders in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching where the jobs really require a person with a versatile knowledge across the field they will be teaching.
The key to seeing out the distance on such a commitment is passion for the subject and the motivation to carry one through the setbacks through the process. A PhD is still a good apprenticeship for a research career, although there are many outstanding thinkers, scientists, and professors who had successful careers without a PhD.
There is a risk in the future that institutional requirements for PhDs will prevent people like Robin Milner, Simon Peyton Jones, Lynn Conway, Walter Russell Mead, Freeman Dyson, Walter Pitts, Ernest Rutherford, Robert Pound, Robert Floyd, Jane Richardson, Satyendra Nath Bose, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Tu Youyou, coming through to excellence in their respective fields.
Public reverence throughout the history of saluting such a high degree of scholarship is premised on the belief that the one accorded the title is a learned sage, expert, and member of the professoriate. Those were the days when according the honor was more stringently observed. When too many fakes or dysfunctional ones, as is the case today are being certified by the degree mills or bona fide institutions for commercial reasons, then it is time that society needs to reexamine the academic worth of the holder of the title rather than the title itself.
Murray Hunter is a development specialist based in Southeast Asia and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.