PhDs for everyone will not improve academia

Ever-expanding numbers of doctoral students may suit universities, but one’s twenties should be a time for broad learning and professional development, not for burying oneself in detailed research, says Lincoln Allison

June 20, 2024
Competitors take part in the Men’s Veterans’ Race at the annual World Coal Carrying Championships to illustrate PhDs for everyone will not improve academia
Source: OLI SCARFF/AFP / Getty Images

In 1989, the chairman of my department asked me to find out how many PhDs had been awarded by the department, which was exactly a quarter of a century old at the time, having grown from three members originally to more than a dozen.

The answer was 11. If you look at the departmental website now, however, there are 47 pictures of people described as current doctoral candidates. That is perhaps over-representative of the global boom in doctorates: the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2022 Education at a Glance report suggests that the number of doctorates in the 38 OECD member countries has doubled this century, to the point that it averages 1.3 per cent of adults over 25. In the US alone, there are now 4.5 million people with doctorates: again, double the number in 2000. Put differently, that amounts to a “doctoral nation” roughly the size of Scotland. In the UK, official statistics suggest that 113,000 students are striving towards a research degree – equivalent to the population of Cheltenham.

Surprisingly few of the staff in my own department had doctorates; when I had started work 20 years previously, there was only one. Academic doctors were sufficiently rare that, as one of my former colleagues points out, we were inclined to say “he (or she) is a PhD”, rather than that they had a PhD. One could describe the one colleague who had a doctorate as ahead of his time in seeing himself as “research manager” keen to develop “departmental strategy”; these were not concepts that troubled most of us. He was listed as a doctor in the local telephone directory, which led to several instances of colleagues telephoning him in supposedly disguised accents to inform him of details of their pains and swellings. For the record, I did not do this myself.

I don’t know for how long I was officially registered as a doctoral student (being Oxford, it was a DPhil, rather than a PhD), but I do know that I was, in practice, a full-time doctoral student for only a few months. And that time fell between my realisation that the graduate degree I was registered for, a BPhil, largely duplicated what I had already done as an undergraduate and my being offered a temporary but more or less full-time appointment teaching at my former college. This was followed immediately by the offer of a permanent appointment at the new University of Warwick.

During this short interval I was able to discover a total lack of rapport with my supervisor. My subject was the politics of the environment, which I suppose you could say was a good spot in 1968. I thought it was about the accounts of human beings’ relationship with nature in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, among others. My supervisor thought it was about studying the minutiae of local government decision-making. To be fair, it’s about both.

Person running in a a six feet diameter wooden 'hamster wheel' in Southend, UK
Avpics / Alamy

I have remained endlessly grateful that I spent so little time on my doctorate: that I did not have to be a perpetual student through my twenties, without salary or pension contributions, plodding a path to a book-length work that wouldn’t even be published. Many would argue that it is a professional training in research, but it isn’t a training in the normal life of an academic. While others were doing doctorates, from the age of 22 I was learning to do pastoral care, administration, communication and course design. I remember how a colleague in another university told me that after completing his doctorate in his late twenties, he got a lecturing job and had to shift from being an expert on certain aspects of the politics of the National Union of Mineworkers to giving 36 lectures on British politics. He found the transition extremely difficult.

By the time I was in my late twenties, I had two reasonably well-honed courses of my own on the go, had published a book and several articles, and was off on my first sabbatical leave. One’s twenties should be a time for broad learning and professional development, not for burying oneself in detailed research. Incidentally, though, my brief doctoral effort did prove to be anything but a waste of time. The one chapter that I wrote expanded into an article, then a course, then two chapters of a book for which, in March 2024, 56 years after it was written, I received a royalty sufficient to buy a decent meal for two.

In some university systems, you are required to have a PhD to supervise doctoral students, but this was never true in established English universities. In the last 15 years of my career, I supervised 24 doctoral students, not all in my home department. By then, it was a requirement of my job. A minority were UK students who knew what they wanted to do and required a light touch as a supervisor. The majority were overseas students struggling with language, breadth of knowledge, finances, lack of confidence and sometimes also with social isolation.

The contrast with the bright, self-confident, final-year undergraduates whom I taught on my options courses could not have been more stark. I used to laugh a bitter and cynical little laugh when anyone referred to “PhD level” as a high intellectual level because, in my experience, my doctoral students wouldn’t have stood a chance in any kind of intellectual contest against my politics undergraduates at Warwick.

I fully accept that it’s almost certainly different in other subjects, particularly in maths and the natural sciences, but that’s how it was for me at that time. The brightest of home-grown undergraduates had long since stopped regarding an academic career as a serious option given the size of salaries, the length of apprenticeship and the lack of certainty about getting a decent job.

In my experience, fear was part of the normal condition of doctoral students. It was mostly the wrong fear because they dreaded not getting the degree, whereas I dreaded that I was wasting their lives by inadvertently luring them into pursuing a doctorate with me as supervisor. I was pretty sure that I could assist anyone towards getting the degree, provided we started on the right foot with a viable subject, some sort of line of argument and some available materials. What followed was the complex and murky question of exactly how much guidance a supervisor should give. What I didn’t have to do was to actually help with the writing because, even then, there were all sorts of ways of solving the linguistic problems that most of my students faced. Now, of course, AI solves them instantly.

I usually adopted an anti-perfectionist strategy. I told them: “Do the damn thing as quickly as possible and submit it. You will then be ‘referred’ and given very specific advice by your examiners. Take this advice as fully and carefully as you can.” Hence, most of my students were referred, but none failed. Still, I did not enjoy or feel comfortable with the procedure and always said that having to supervise doctorates was one of the reasons that I pursued early retirement so avidly. And, yes, I was and am aware that there are people who regard it as the most important part of their job.

Meanwhile, doctorates posed some family dilemmas. One of my sons was offered the chance to do a well-funded doctorate but turned it down without a second thought. Another wanted to do a doctorate (in philosophy) but I persuaded him not to because it would involve living in penury and probably not getting an appropriate job anyway. A third was well qualified but wasn’t offered funding, so didn’t even consider it.

Meanwhile, I did acquire a doctorate, but of “letters” rather than philosophy. This meant I had three degrees, including a first one and an Oxford MA, but the master’s and doctorate were, in essence, fakes; this seemed well in tune with modern academic life and standards. I was happy to have the doctorate because I thought that not having one might close off certain opportunities for me, especially abroad, in what I planned as a long and active retirement (it’s been 20 years so far and there is no hard evidence either way as to whether I was right).

Anyone who wants to defend the role of the doctorate in academic life has to contend with the undeniable truth that doctorates (even mine) have become deeply ambiguous and, therefore, have declined in value in a global economy and academic system. The DPhil as I first knew of it was 100,000 words of original scholarship, assumed to be publishable by a major academic publisher. By contrast, many American PhDs included coursework to make up for the lack of specialism in first degrees and were considered (by many Europeans at least) to be no more than over-promoted master’s degrees.

In many European countries, but especially in Germany, a mere doctorate was not important: what mattered was the Doctor Habilitatus, or habilitation, a kind of fully fledged professional academic recognition that qualified the successful candidate for a full professorship. Naturally, it is rarely awarded to anyone under 40, and the system is under attack for diverting and stultifying academic careers, though it still exists in many places. At the other end of the scale, it is a more or less unofficial rule in Italy that anyone with a degree can be addressed as Dottore or Dottoressa; readers and viewers of the Inspector Montalbano detective stories will know that the eponymous character, whose proper title is Commissario, is more usually addressed as Dottore, which has come to mean something like “boss”. I do like the Italian etiquette, though, that it is not acceptable to describe yourself as Dottore.

A further force for devaluation comes from the tendency of many academic institutions to try to upgrade their staff who have not got doctorates as the assumption has been established that everyone should have one. The most common method is through PhD by publication, usually achieved by submitting three published works. The most obvious problem about this is the question of what counts as having any substance as a publication. The term “privishing” goes back to the very beginning of my academic life, and it generally refers to outlets that have expanded to meet the need for authors to be seen as “published”, although texts published via these tiny “private” print runs are rarely read. Is it really publishing when the author has to pay and nobody reads it?

There are also those doctorates that are, in essence, a subsidiary part of some senior academic’s research: a kind of extended set essay, if you like. I can only imagine what I might have said, as an extremely independent-minded, not to say arrogant young man, if someone had suggested that I spend years doing a piece of work essentially chosen by my professor or supervisor.

And I don’t know what job I would have ended up with if I had been required to complete a doctorate while also learning on the job as an academic, as many people now are, particularly in institutions that have been upgraded to universities. The worst cases of this are probably in South Africa, where less than 40 per cent of university staff have doctorates and there is a national policy to upgrade as many people as possible.

Fakes and grade inflation are everywhere, and at least as much in academic life as anywhere else. What is worse than the fakery related to the increase in doctoral study is the waste of life. Isn’t it, frankly, rather tragic to spend several years in what should be the most productive time of your life studying in a rather specialised way and neither getting to share your work with a wider audience nor receiving a decent job out of it?

Of course, in saying that, I am going against the grain of some powerful systematic tendencies in terms of public choice theory. Universities make a lot of money out of PhDs – although the domestic market has largely voted with its feet – and those who have struggled through the system have powerful interests in sustaining it. By exposing it, however, one may hope to save the odd soul.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick.

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Reader's comments (11)

Marketisation has devalued doctorates as it has done to every other aspect of academic life . However, it is still possible to encourage and guide doctoral students to take a wide view of their studies. The one thing I most enjoyed about my PhD (obtained in 1977) was the opportunity to study something small enough to be "doable" and connect it to a much wider reality, including great philosophical questions (whether or not I was able to contribute anything to them): to see a world in a grain of sand. We have to fight back against the cheapening of academic life and work.
Excellent article. The PhD in some subjects is in essence a contribution via a research team’s project as a sort of apprenticeship to a precarious decade or more as a post-doc on a succession of fixed-term contracts; in other subjects it is a period of prolonged loneliness hidden in the library/archives but useful to the HE Industry as low-paid zero-hours cheap labour covering the teaching burden in a mass system while the tenured academics crack on with their research. The amazing thing is that the Industry succeeds in luring in so many hopeful innocents year after year!
We are headed for the 'Indian well tragedy' here. There's a story that in India a village all had hand dug wells maybe 10 m deep, and every so often they all ran dry. Then along comes a salesperson who finds the wealthiest 5% of the villagers and says "If you buy my diesel generator and water pump you can take your well down to 50 m and you will have water even ina drought when no-one else does". So they buy them, the water table drops, and pretty soon all the villagers need these generators to get water at all times. And because the water table has dropped 40 m, they all suffer just the same water shortage as before, only there iis NO going back as 10 m wells don;t hack it any more. The same fate has befallen degrees, Masters, PhDs, even book publications and journal articles. None of these carry anything like the weight they did 20-30 years ago because journals, publishers, PhDs etc have proliferated, yet they are still necessary, and there is no way back.
PhDs are now an easy-to-buy commodity, like many degrees at various levels, in an international system that thinks it's a business. Some people are too smart to bother getting them, including the suicidal young woman waiting behind me in a coffee queue at a literary festival. On the front of her T-shirt was "Unique Young Woman". I asked her why. She turned around: "NOT Working on My Dayboo Novel for a Pee Haitch Dee." I suspect she was trampled to death as she walked past the session on Women's Fiction.
Interesting article and though as a scientist not all of what the authors conveys resonates with my experience, the message that there are far too many individuals with doctorates is spot on. This growth in doctorates has devalued the degree, given titles to some who are should not have them and misled some academics who may have no interest in a doctorate and are excellent and highly capable scholars forced to undertake a degree that does not align with their skills, interests or aspirations. Furthermore, a distinction needs to be made between a PhD and a Professional 'doctorate'- these are different and the title should reflect this.
We seem to have lost the idea that there is value and joy in just learning a PhD is a way to do that. Academics should not fall into the commodification trap.
It's been a life-long ambition to have a PhD, ever since I first heard of the beastie. Yet... it never happened. In 1980 with a shiny new undergraduate degree in botany I rolled up to continue studying botany at a different university, driven by the curiousity that had led me to read botany in the first place. Three years later I went home with a pile of research and the intention to write it up. Marriage, the need to work, and an abrupt professional change to computering as a trainee programmer at a software house put paid to that. The departure from this life of my parents some years later left me with enough money to enrol at the local university for a pure interest PhD in the development of uniforms.... nobody knew what to do with me and impending motherhood led to a mutual parting of the ways. I went back to commercial programming, jumping into this new-fangled WWW-thingy, becoming webmaster at the local FE college when its website said "Hey. We're cool. We HAVE a Website... please call this number to find out what we offer" (soon changed that!) and drifted into teaching with an interest in elearning.... time passed, professional qualifications gained (Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, no less) and eventually I slithered into a university which was looking for someone to support online learning. Aha. Maybe I could do a staff PhD... but it was discovered that I'm autistic and could not cope with the rigors of a viva so it was suggested that I drop out for my own health. Yet, guess what? My role changed over the years and now I'm an academic anyway!
I do not understand what specifically the author is arguing against. He never makes that clear.
I think that PhDs should not be taken as full time degrees. Researchers doing PhDs are supposed to be making positive contribution to society in their fields of specialization.
Oh dear. It rather painful to hear that at least 24 students should have suffered a supervisor who so obviously disdains the degree on which they were enrolled and apparently could not be bothered to supervise them properly.
Oh dear. It rather painful to hear that at least 24 students should have suffered a supervisor who so obviously disdains the degree on which they were enrolled and apparently could not be bothered to supervise them properly.