On not having a PhD

by Chris Bertram on February 25, 2004

bq. “Goddammit, Morris, what are we going to do with this guy Swallow? He claims he ain’t _got_ a field.” Morris has recommended putting Philip down to teach English 99, a routine introduction to the literary genres and critical method for English majors, and English 305, a course in novel-writing. As Euphoric State’s resident novelist, Garth Robinson, was in fact very rarely resident, orbiting the University in an almost unbroken cycle of grants, fellowships, leaves of absence and alcoholic cures, the teaching of English 305 usually fell to some unwilling and unqualified member of the regular teaching staff. As Morris said, “If he makes a fuck-up of English 305, nobody’s going to notice. And any clown with a PhD should be able to teach English 99.”
“He doesn’t have a PhD, ” Hogan said.
“They have a different system in England, Morris. The PhD isn’t so important.”
“You mean the jobs are hereditary?”

I quote this passage from David Lodge’s “Changing Places”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140170987/junius-20 in reaction to reading some of “the comments about Simon Schama”:http://www.invisibleadjunct.com/archives/000471.html over at Invisible Adjunct. As is happens, I don’t have a PhD either, and nor do several prominent British philosophers of my generation (such as UCL’s Jo Wolff, a contemporary of mine on the M.Phil at UCL in the early 80s). In the previous generation hardly anyone did the PhD or DPhil, most people got appointed after doing the Oxford B.Phil or the London M.Phil or something similar (these are both two-year postgraduate degrees involving a combination of examination and dissertation).

I guess things really changed in the UK in the mid 1980s when, thanks to Mrs T, there were suddenly no jobs at all in British academia. Those who wanted an academic career had to get one in North America or not at all, and for that they needed the PhD. By the time there were jobs again back in the UK, that had become the requirement for us too. (Though _the best_ young British political philosopher _still_ hasn’t finished his PhD, though he has managed to land himself another permanent job – you know who you are!)

Naturally, in a field now dominated by people with the qualification, I feel the occasional twinge of inadequacy. It isn’t clear to me, though, that we are all better off as a result of the norms having changed. Some very good British philosophers have flourished in the post-war period without the PhD and it isn’t obvious that either scholarship or good teaching are best served by making prospective educators pass through a long period of hyperspecialization and impoverishment. Many fail to get through at all, and plenty of others do so but find that they don’t really have much prospect of getting a job.

(No doubt those who have invested years in getting their doctorates will take a different view.)



trish 02.25.04 at 5:40 pm

although those of us currently stuck in the five year doctorate programs common in most North American universities (when started without a masters) may agree somewhat. Hyperspecialization is fine, but the extended impoverishment is leading to fewer PhD students from Canada in the physical sciences.


djw 02.25.04 at 6:06 pm

My curiousity has been piqued–who is this brilliant youngster?


harry 02.25.04 at 6:50 pm

He’s not young at all djw, he’s older than me (well, I’m pretty sure he is, at least if he isn’t its a matter of less than a year). And I shan’t see 39 again.
But I am not telling his name — I think we should let him out himself.


harry 02.25.04 at 7:38 pm

And on your main point Chris, no, I think you’re absolutely right. Its a simple case of wasteful positional competition, and makes the entry into academia more of a stamina test. Most of us with PhDs didn’t do any real worthwhile work till we were done and got jobs. And those who did valuable work on their PhD would probably have done it anyway.

Another point — in philosophy at least almost all important work is now done in articles, not books (which tend to be reconstitutions of a series of articles). So the book-like form of the PhD is very odd (I think NYU does it differently). As perhaps the case of the anonymous ‘young’ political philosopher suggests.
Hope none of my grad students read this…


sennoma 02.25.04 at 8:30 pm

in philosophy at least almost all important work is now done in articles, not books (which tend to be reconstitutions of a series of articles). So the book-like form of the PhD is very odd

Quite a lot of PhD programs in biology allow a candidate to bind up their published articles, write an essay covering the literature and placing their own work in context, and submit that as a thesis.

On the main point, I agree with “wasteful positional competition” and “more of a stamina test”. Twinges of inadequacy caused by lack of a PhD are to be dismissed immediately as having no basis in anything other than the snobbish milieu propagated by hidebound academics who want to view their own degrees as meaningful in and of themselves. Which they aren’t, and I say that as one who underwent the requisite suffering. Research, or research not; there is no “qualify” — as one of my favourite philosophers might put it.


Bob McGrew 02.25.04 at 9:01 pm

I’m not so sure it’s just wasteful competition. I’m in the second year of my Ph.D. program (nearly done with the equivalent of my Masters), and I for one do not feel prepared to do teaching and research full-time or to mentor other graduate students.

Also, the Ph.D. as collection of papers is the norm in computer science (at least at Stanford), and, I hear, in economics as well.


John Quiggin 02.25.04 at 9:07 pm

There’s an important difference between the traditional British PhD – three years of lightly supervised research with the (normally unrealised) aim of producing a big “contribution to knowledge”, and the US model – a couple of years of intensive coursework and a “three essays” thesis which is, as sennoma notes, sometimes reduced to a boundup collection of journal articles.

The rise of the US model reflects the need for ever more technical training for anyone who wants to reach the frontiers in any field – a natural consequence of the growth of knowledge. The older model had a significant element of positional competition.


GMT 02.25.04 at 10:17 pm

I wept that I had no PhD,
’till I met a man with no brain.

[w/ apologies to cobblers and shoeless people everywhere]


abd 02.25.04 at 11:53 pm

As my department head told me, it doesn’t make any difference if you’re a good teacher or not, if you want to play in our ballpark, you’ve got to play by our rules.

A PhD is a union ticket.

abd (all but dissertation)


Martin 02.25.04 at 11:55 pm

I used to love the idea of a PhD but now I know Jo wolff doesn’t have one I just don’t know what to think.


David Margolies 02.26.04 at 12:10 am

My godfather, who was a Cambridge classicist who became Master of one of the Colleges, only had an MA and was actually against PhD’s outside of the hard sciences. His view was that with a PhD, you had to spend the rest of your life defending whatever your dissertation said, and it was probably wrong, given the young age at which you produced it. (In contrast, in the hard sciences, right and wrong are usually ascertainable by generally agreed upon independent means.)

What mattered to him was what you had accomplished after finishing University: what books or papers had you written, etc.


Matt Weiner 02.26.04 at 2:13 am

five year doctorate program
Snort… wheeze… chuckle…
I certainly feel more qualified to do good work and to teach upper-level classes now than I did three years into my program, but having made <$20K a year from age 23 to 32, and still finding it difficult to get a permanent job, I sometimes find myself getting grumpy and experiencing some generation envy. I don't have a solution, though.


harry 02.26.04 at 2:54 am

Neither of my American employers (PhD required) have ever sought any evidence of any of my educational qualifications. My one British employer (PhD *not* required) demanded evidence of my PhD, BA, A Levels, and O Levels (actual certificates, no copies allowed). I must have noticed this before, but this thread has somehow crystallised it for me.

BTW, my above comments refer solely to Philosophy — and I didn’t imagine they’d be trasnferable to other fields, esp in the sciences and social sciences.


Matt McG 02.26.04 at 12:58 pm

As someone who has the Oxford B.Phil and is finishing the D.Phil [but finding 3 years + working on just one topic harder than I thought] I REALLY wish we still lived in the days when it was possible to go straight from the B.Phil or equivalent to an academic job…


real 02.26.04 at 4:06 pm

wasn’t there even a time when doing a DPhil was a sign of inferiority? (additional hard labour to prove yourself?) Why after all did anyone need anything once they’d been through PPE?

I like your notion of “young” Chris, it makes me feel a lot better (apologies to the young philosopher!)


JRoth 02.26.04 at 7:54 pm

As a complete outsider to philosophy and (aside from my requisite tenure there) academia, may I just point out the obvious, that it’s funny to think that the only acamedicians who are not Doctors of Philosophy are philosophers?


Matthew 02.29.04 at 4:24 pm

I remember meeting philosopher Jonathan Dancy at a conference a couple of years ago. He spent a good portion of the weekend saying “No. Not Dr. Dancy, Mr. Dancy.” Or something to that affect. The assumption among most of the US participants was that as a professor and professional philosopher he must have his PhD. I guess that proves the old saw about assumptions…

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