Industry experience is not enough for university lecturers

Practitioners have a lot to teach students, but the value of research training should not be dismissed lightly, says Sam Christie

December 22, 2020
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Joseph Epstein’s recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on whether Jill Biden, pedagogy scholar and incoming US First Lady, should parade her right to place “Dr” before her name rightly caused a stir. In his article Epstein said a lot of things, but in the subtext said much more.

The internet was alive with strong reactions against the writer, who seemed to think it unacceptable that that a woman with a doctorate should have the temerity to actually announce it, saying that her use of it felt “fraudulent, not to say a touch comic”. Epstein also questioned the basic validity of the PhD, especially in the humanities, and suggested that those people who have acquired one, particularly in recent decades, should be rather cagy about it. He revealed that he himself did not have a PhD, or any higher degree for that matter, but had taught at Northwestern University for 30 years.

Epstein’s surprisingly vociferous attack underlined my own sense that having a PhD is beginning to seem like a liability. I have read articles suggesting that doctorates can be a barrier to employment, since the employer sees in them a person who must be in some way deranged to spend years studying at that level of intensity. But while reticence about having a PhD might therefore be understandable in the world of business, the one place you would expect it to remain highly valued would be in universities. Yet it appears that even here it has become, at least in some disciplines, rather immaterial.

If you look at many adverts for lecturing posts in my academic discipline of documentary production, for example, more often than not universities are happy to receive applications from “industry practitioners” with no PhD but a level of professional experience that is commensurate with one. Many of the adverts stipulate a requirement for appointees to complete a PhD within five years of starting, but, in practice, I know of many lecturers who, like Epstein, never begin one. I have even heard of a university lecturer who has no first degree; how can that be when even secondary school teachers are required to have one?

It is obviously beneficial for students to be taught by those who have solid industry backgrounds. Indeed, it is essential. However, given what is involved in getting a PhD – in essence, a significant amount of research training – it is also beneficial for students to be taught by people who can call themselves “Dr”.

While there may be truth in Epstein’s assertion that PhDs, like many qualifications, have become somewhat easier to get, doctoral study remains, at the very least, quite hard. It is also the case that many PhDs have significant industry experience and have used that to gain a PhD in the normal way, writing theses that draw on that experience. It is not easy to judge what level of industry experience is commensurate with a PhD, so if industry figures get theirs the traditional way, that solves at least one problem!

Speaking about this frequently leads to accusations of elitism or intellectual snobbery, and it is right that both of these are constantly questioned. However, it is also right that we should re-evaluate what the PhD is good for. Perhaps in the dark past of the higher education sector, it is true that lecturers favoured research over teaching, perhaps considering teaching an add-on to the job. And perhaps, in that context, it was right to question universities’ insistence that all their staff should have PhDs. But, in the UK, the introduction of the teaching excellence framework and the various teaching qualifications that lecturers are expected to gain have largely put paid to that culture.

Those departments that no longer consider having a PhD particularly desirable should ask themselves why they are admitting PhD students at all. The answer is that a PhD does bring significant value and acts as a mark of quality.

This is not to say that industry experts don’t contribute valuable research, However, at a time when research, especially in the sciences, seems so crucial and the government appears to be rethinking its view on experts, the PhD seems more relevant than ever. It is through the PhD that a vibrant research culture can exist, which benefits not only knowledge acquisition and communication but also teaching since the students are taught by those who, more likely than not, know quite a lot about their subject.

As for sticking “Dr” before one’s name, it is a hard one to call, but whether you do so or not, getting a PhD matters and should be treated as if it does.

Sam Christie is a freelance documentary filmmaker and an adjunct lecturer.

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