Doctorates in trouble

November 11, 1994

Shortly before my undergraduate finals, I asked an eminent American social scientist, who had come to give a guest seminar, how he had first become interested in his field. I have forgotten his full answer but it began with the words: "My career began when I was awarded a PhD from . . ."

Twenty-five years later, while enjoying a glass of sherry in a certain senior common room, an American fellow of the college introduced me to an economist with the words: "This is John, he was very lucky to get a fellowship without a PhD." John, as it turned out, was a more than competent economist with acknowledged expertise in a highly complex and socially significant area. His certificated achievements, however, had stopped with an MPhil.

It is well known that higher education in the United States overvalues doctorates in rather the same way as the Oxbridge tradition overvalues Firsts. But the fact remains that many of the world's greatest academics, researchers, teachers and innovators have not taken doctorates as part of their professional formation. It is not unreasonable to wonder why this particular certificate should be virtually a sine qua non for access to a teaching post.

I pose this question because among my own colleagues are people of undoubted ability, extremely creditable certification, proven skills in undergraduate teaching and who have made inroads into the world of publication and research.

The message from on high, however, seems to be that a permanent job requires a doctorate. When seminar sizes make a mockery of learning by guided discussion and the system needs more full-time committed lecturers, what do these worthy academics lack that could be remedied by the possession of a PhD?

In social sciences there seems to be little relationship between the subject of a doctoral dissertation and subsequent areas of teaching. This is particularly so where someone has completed their doctorate prior to a teaching appointment. Among more mature students, a research topic more often comes to light during the experience of teaching. But in either case most PhD theses in the social sciences do not make stimulating reading and end their days gathering dust unwanted, unpublished and unquoted.

It can be claimed that doctoral research is a necessary apprenticeship in learning and personal discipline rather like that served by junior hospital doctors. The tenured lecturership like the consultancy has been earned. This analogy, however, does not hold. Doctors deal with life-threatening situations the outcome of which depends on their training, skill and experience. The crucial nature and timing of decisions is not something with which arts and social science lecturers need be preoccupied. We cannot really compare examination board decisions about plagiarism with those made by doctors after a motorway pile-up.

The possessor of a PhD brings to his or her teaching a certified research experience that may not be a necessary requirement for the job. In the natural sciences the situation may well be different but, in the social sciences, many a PhD has been supervised by someone with only a first degree.

We would not underrate the doctorate but it is logical that if PhD supervision can be undertaken by lecturers without doctorates, a doctorate is not a sine qua non for a teaching post.

Many newly designated universities have given senior posts to lecturers who entered in the pre-Robbins era when little more than a lower-second was required.This suggests that not all able teachers are research orientated. Those who are deserve every encouragement and we should expect to find many of them numbered among new appointments. Others, and there are many ruminating resentfully on part-time contracts, are good graduates with creditable masters degrees and professional qualifications who have chalked up a great deal of teaching experience without the benefits of a secure full-time post.

Many are struggling with part-time doctorates in the hope that this will be their entry visa, others are writing about themes that interest them: almost all are giving universities excellent service on the cheap. If Britain is to follow the US model and make doctorates more or less obligatory it would be helpful if the Committee of Vice Chancellors made a statement to that effect.

If any reader is looking for a research topic to boost his/her curriculum vitae I offer the following suggestion: conduct a survey of university graduates over, say, the past 20 years and concentrate on those with degrees in the arts and social sciences. Confine respondents to those with an upper second or better from a sample of universities in Britain. In the course of asking lots of meaningful and searching questions ask them about the merits of those who taught them as undergraduates. Find out who inspired them most, who encouraged their academic curiosity, who led them into important debates and who they feel most grateful to for gaining an upper-second or better. After this, find out whether the most esteemed teachers had doctorates. Your findings might be of interest to the CVCP and also to funding bodies for postgraduate study. In addition, your research might help you to get a job.

There are exceptional academics who excel both at teaching and published research. To the extent that such people fill senior university posts we should rejoice. Others who are exceptional in the research field are no loss to the classroom when they are away at conferences and the allocation of a light teaching load is probably in everyone's interests.

Some, however, show their greatest abilities in teaching and this is the context in which their original thought is contributed. A candidate for a teaching post may fall into all three categories. The matter will not be clarified until the appointee has been in post for a couple of years. A candidate may or may not have a doctorate at the time of application. The possession or otherwise of a PhD will tell the potential employers little about how the future will unfold.

In the case of non-doctoral applicants with experience, often on lengthy part-time contracts something IS known about their level of competence and teaching ability. Where what is known is positive, praiseworthy and, as is often the case, exemplary, there seems to me no reason why the lack of an earned doctorate should count against them. It is odd that a candidate with a doctorate may be preferred even though he began with a lower-second, did a postgraduate diploma, plodded through masters degree and then on to a PhD. On the other hand, a brilliant first-class degree plus a more specialised masters, experience and teaching ability may be rated as insufficient.

The moral, I think, is that doctoral research should be undertaken for its own sake out of a genuine interest to investigate a topic and not as a tediuous necessity for academic employment. While employers must ask themselves what they really need and what will serve the best interests of their students.

David Dewey is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Middlesex.

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