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What’s the Value of a Ph.D.?

November 12, 2010

We asked students to give voice to their thoughts on the value of a Ph.D.

Labors of Choice

In recent weeks, a series of animated video shorts has been making the rounds amongst grad students and faculty of my acquaintance. The original one, titled “So you want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities?,” has since spawned a number of discipline-specific offsprings, ranging from physics to history to political science. The “plot” for each of them remains largely consistent: A student approaches a faculty member, determined to obtain a recommendation for his or her application to Ph.D. programs, because, in the video’s memorable tagline, “I’m going to be a college professor!” Before acquiescing to the request, however, the professor regales the student with a frequently farcical litany of the true horrors of the academic profession in general and the doctoral experience in particular: graduate school is slavery, the job market non-existent, faculty positions, should the student be lucky enough to obtain one, are merely an advanced form of grad school torture. In short, the value of a Ph.D., the clip suggests, is merely that of an overpriced ticket to a bleak and profoundly uncertain future.

Among my colleagues in Duke’s and other graduate programs, these videos–posted and re-posted ad nauseam via Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs–have been received with a mixture of amusement, discomfort and anxiety. On the one hand, most instructors have at one point or another encountered the kind of naive applicant whose vision of doctoral work involves living a nebulous but pleasant “life of the mind” while discounting the very real challenges involved in obtaining a graduate degree. Indeed, some of us cringe to recognize glimpses of our own undergraduate selves in the cartoon students’ idealistic obtuseness. By the same token, however, the “professor”’s diatribe presents an equally unbalanced vision of life in grad school and beyond, discounting the passion, sense of calling, and sheer enjoyment that most graduate students and faculty bring to their profession.

The clip’s cynical presentation of academic “realities” struck a perhaps unduly personal chord for me. Like a number of my European colleagues, I am the first in my family to go to college–the academically privileged offspring of parents whose generation was too severely affected by the aftermath of World War II to enjoy access to higher education. The “life of the mind,” far from being a mere trope, has been that generation’s earnest hope for its children: the aspiration that we might be able to choose our professional future with greater freedom than our parents, less constrained by economic need, and with fewer limits set to opportunity and imagination alike. Within the context of my own family history, I am frequently struck by the stark contrast between the luxury that my pursuit of over a decade’s worth of college and graduate education represents, and the economic realities that forced my mother to leave school before her sixteenth birthday to support her own mother, a war-widow. By the same token, my first job as a newly minted graduate of a humanities Ph.D. program might involve an undesirably high teaching load or pressing demands to publish or perish. Those demands cannot be gainsaid, and yet for me as for most graduate students they tend to pale when compared to my father’s first job as a workhand in one of rural Austria’s sawmills.

There is no question that the pursuit of a Ph.D. involves great effort, and for many considerable hardship. Yet those labors are, if not always labors of love, then at least labors of choice. The value of a Ph.D. does not consist in endowing its bearers with a badge of their intelligence, although my colleagues and faculty are among the smartest people I know. Nor, for that matter, does the Ph.D. represent a guarantee of freedom from fiscal challenges and economic hardships, although the American Association of University Professors’s (AAUP) most recent and rather bleak report on the economic status of the academic profession still ranks most faculty among the upper middle classes. Least of all is the Ph.D. a one-way ticket to a charmed life spent sunning oneself in one’s students’, peers’ and publishers’ regard, although I am frequently overwhelmed by the intellectual and interpersonal generosity of my peers and mentors.

In the last instance, the value of a Ph.D. lies in something far more mundane: it equips those who hold this title for careers of teaching and scholarship, for a lifetime spent, to a greater or lesser degree, reading, writing, and talking about one’s areas of interest–and to take home a paycheck for doing so. Not all of those who hold Ph.D.s will find suitable employment; indeed, surveys suggest that fewer than half enter the “tenure track.” The ability to choose higher education comes with the responsibility to choose wisely, with eyes wide open to the challenges of graduate school, the state of the academic job market, and the fact that even the most satisfying job is no panacea for the difficulties that attend the lives of faculty everywhere.

Yet for those passionate about research and teaching, the Ph.D. nevertheless represents the best and frequently only shot at dedicating their professional future to those passions. As my doctoral advisor, whose academic career spans nearly fifty years and who continues to invest herself into her calling with unmitigated vigor, recently noted: “It’s the best kind of life.”

–Maria E. Doerfler, Religion

Anyone Who Knows What It Took Knows What It’s Worth

Among the various disciplines that offer Ph.D.s, there are a handful of ordeals that every department’s students will experience in a common way. Despite their disparate studies and daily routines, these students will all come to understand the politics and platitudes of appeasing reviewers; they will discover the nuanced etiquettes that enable the navigation of institutional bureaucracies; they will endure the ego-deflating inquisitions known as “oral examinations”. And as they repeatedly pass through these tribulations, every student will at some point (and often quite frequently) wonder with a trace of cynicism, “What is the value of a Ph.D.?”

But even the brightest among us are often stumped by this question. I don’t believe that the significance of a Ph.D. is something that anyone can truly understand before it’s been earned. And I doubt that many can say they’ve definitively discovered its value even after it has been. By this, I mean that value of the degree is not so much a function of the experiences of that proud graduate who has achieved it, but rather the value lies in the perception of those experiences by those whose regard for him will influence the course of his life. And in the often isolated and mysterious world of academia, those experiences are seldom understood by any who have not experienced that world for themselves. Even those freshly entering this life as graduate students are often blissfully unaware of what they’ve gotten themselves into. Academia is a dangerous world of alluring paths to failure. It’s a world of politics and cronyism. It’s a world of barely distinguishable geniuses and charlatans, where one is often the other from day to day. It’s a world weighed down by its worldliness, just like any other, even as it aspires to pure and unencumbered knowledge. And it’s important to know this in order to understand what makes a Ph.D.

I often cynically imagine that we’ve intentionally created this opaque institution for ourselves, projecting a world of knowledge and innovation to mask the failures and frustrations that we more commonly endure. This is, of course, understandable. To successfully market a product, one doesn’t highlight the obstacles overcome during its development (although these might, in a way, serve as testimony to the quality of the creation). Rather, one puts the best face on it and hopes it sells. And when the product is knowledge, it’s all the more important to make it seem as though the ideas are flowing and evolving effortlessly. After all, who wants to fund all the unavoidable dead-ends you’ll encounter on the way to a publishable conclusion? And so we highlight the sellable features and bury the desperate failures.

But just as the failures that are overcome in the production of the commodity are reflections of the quality of its development, so too are the trials and frustrations of graduate students the means by which they mold themselves into productive Ph.D.s. And though those who haven’t experienced it may not know the tests that a student endures, our personal sense of value is in what we’ve discovered through these tests. So in the end, I suppose the value of the Ph.D. is found in the patience, perseverance, optimism, and successes it represents. But the successes are the least of it—it’s the long and trying path to those successes that give it value. Without a doubt, the degree is the final reward for passing this trial. If you can get through it, you’ve earned it. And anyone who knows what it took knows what it’s worth.

–Andrew Fontanella, Biomedical Engineering

Pushing Myself as an Artist

To put it simply, in the field of music composition, the Doctor of Philosophy is a degree that allows a composer to teach music at the university level. It is unique among the humanities in that the Ph.D. is not necessarily a requirement for a composer’s professional career (whereas for my colleagues in other departments, the Ph.D. represents an important step in becoming an established scholar, on the road towards publications and tenure). For example, most of the Western-tradition composers that we study in a music department (from Hildegard von Bingen to Leonard Bernstein, let’s say) never went to school for a Ph.D.

The inclusion of music composition as an academic discipline is a modern phenomenon, navigating between the art of creating music and the research-oriented needs of a university. What should a “composition” curriculum include and exclude, and why? How does the academy reconcile the creative act (which at times necessarily defies precedence and rejects previous works) with the history-based linearity of research? Could one compare the work of John Cage, John Williams, and John Adams under one cohesive rubric? If all three would come before a qualifying exam committee, how would the composers and their work be evaluated? And, most importantly, what does it mean to evaluate art?

The place of music composition in today’s academy and the question that it raises are unique among all academic disciplines, and provides a glimpse into the value of this degree. In addition to allowing a composer to work in higher education, the Ph.D.’s worth for a composer is necessarily open-ended, allowing each individual student to discover, reflect and refine in the course of study.

First, the Ph.D. at Duke provided five full years of support of my creative work. While I also spent a lot of time teaching and writing term papers and article drafts, the bulk of my time was spent writing music, and gaining a wider view of the current state of contemporary music in America. I grew as an artist, I tried my hand at many different musical voices and influences that interested me, and I had heated discussions with my professors over our artistic differences. I emerged more confident of my craft and my artistic vision, having a clearer point of view in what it means to be an artist in today’s world, as well as a deeper understanding of the value of actively disseminating music and engaging new audiences. All this could only be achieved with time, and the graduate program afforded me this valued asset–virtually unparalleled save for a select few schools in the nation.

On the other hand, the Ph.D. in the context of a major research institution gave me a chance to meet students from other disciplines. I learned about the art of research, the place of the humanities in academia, and the drive behind many scientific discoveries that my peers in various laboratories are working tirelessly on.

Finally, the value of the Ph.D. at Duke was having the chance to grow. The flexibility and open-ended nature of the degree allowed me to reflect on the role of the artist in today’s world. I am excitedly uncertain of the way ahead–in the kind of composer I will be next, in the work that I will do, in the other fields that I may consider in the future–yet I find the last five years to be an immensely gratifying experience in pushing myself as an artist, having the opportunity to write music every day without distractions. Graduate school did indeed postpone “reality” of getting a job and working full-time. However, I feel that I came out of the experience a stronger individual with a richer artistic voice, and ready to apply my newfound knowledge in my life and work.

–George Lam, Music

It Takes an Island to Raise a Doctoral Student

“Writing Creole is difficult,” wrote François Chrestien in 1822 from Mauritius Island, a rarely mentioned locale and home of the ancient dodo bird located in the southwestern quadrant of the Indian Ocean. Mauritius’ (a.k.a Bourbon Island’s) history spirals three hundred and sixty degrees touching the coast of Madagascar, the volcano on Reunion Island, the Western coast of India, the island continent of Australia, the Middle East and the southern and eastern coasts of Africa.

Chrestien’s lengthy and personal preface prepares his audience for an entire collection of songs and poems in French and Creole chronicling and capturing the major events on Mauritius and beyond. Later, Chrestien continues to explain that writing Creole is not only difficult because it is Creole, but also because it is difficult to capture the real emotions and feelings with a formal orthography due to the fact that the sounds were so unlike any of the imperial languages which may have dominated the region at the time.

While we may never be able to capture the real sounds of the “Creole” transcribed by Chrestien nearly 180 years ago, it is fair to note that Chrestien, an instructor, sought aid to ensure that his work would be legible to those that he wished to serve—anyone willing to read what he labeled his “essais”—French for “tries or efforts.” Had Chrestien attempted to write on his own under a palm tree, on a slave plantation, or maybe even on a boat (carrying who knows what), his work may not have travelled these three hundred and sixty degrees some 180 years later.

While writing about Creole certainly has its ideological difficulties, I have come to “unparticularize” Creole with at least one universal truth as I attempt to make sense of my multi-lingual transition (eventual) from a graduate student to a diploma carrying “Doctor of Philosophy” by modifying his preliminary formulation: writing anything in any language for any unforeseen or unheard of readership is “difficult” for anyone: period.

At times, graduate students find themselves attempting to read, to write, and to discuss almost everything and almost nothing seemingly at the same time, but the only way to be an apprentice to writing is to read and then the vicious circle cycles. (N.B.: The Chicago Manuel can really be “fun” for punctuation. Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day can somewhat cure graduate school paranoia. The Craft of Research can turn a badly articulated unintentional dismissal into a generously written critique.) Our readings include large lists with disciplinary canons and philosophical treaties along with multilingual instruction manuals that we read to play board games or to assemble or dismantle our bookshelves. We must know our canons, yet if the instructions on “Taboo” are not well-written and agreed upon, war and strife surely will ensue!

In the process of learning to be a “Ph.D.”, one not only has to have a deep personal understanding of its value but often be reminded of it! We are writing about subjects after much invested time. The “sounds” at times become difficult to learn how to transcribe and to contain in Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, and Chicago styles of writing. The value of our degrees is seldom evoked such that it loses itself in a preliminary exam anxiety, in misfired or misdirected e-mails at all hours of the night, or in indentation formatting. After a trying exam period, students may question their literacy, their sanity, and their ability to be “normal” after obsessing about seemingly mundane details in midst of a world always disintegrating before their very eyes. In general, we spend most of the time steadfastly trying to prove ultimate mastery, but in reality acquiring a Ph.D. takes great humility considering that sitting down to write a manuscript that may or may not have the strongest readership takes lot of guts and much patience.

Ultimately, doctoral students want to be understood on page and from afar without their physical presence. We are left hoping that our choice of style, intentionality, and tone are clear and appropriate once the page/book/journal is printed (or loads on a Web page). It seems that the value of such a degree resides in the ability to retransmit convincingly new ways of retransmitting knowledge, which had previously been kept, hoarded, or simply overlooked. Eventually, it could even become an ethical duty to retransmit.

It is surely a fact that a doctoral degree includes teaching, summer travel, problem solving, in depth research, and a list of items found on any university Web page, but we also hope that our knowledge production can be useful to someone at some point in time in some space. The moments of applicability are always unforeseen and never surge forth when we expect it. The Creolist from Mauritius surely never imagined the applicability of his labor.

–Reginald D. Patterson, Romance Studies