Wilfred Cude
The Ph.D. Trap R E V I S I T E D
Copyright © Wilfred Cude, 2001 | Click here to buy!



This book, let me stress at the very beginning, is designed to effect positive change in a central academic institution now painfully and destructively faltering. While nearly all the standard literature concerning our contemporary university structure is unrelievedly laudatory, that literature is generated by tenured faculty with an obvious vested interest in promoting the prevailing forms and usages, thereby minimizing or ignoring difficulties that otherwise would cry out for correction. This book, by sharp contrast, sets out to address those manifold difficulties frankly and at length, in order to advocate necessary and long-deferred reform. Hence, the intent is to light a votary's candle at the altar of higher learning, rather than ignite an incendiary's torch to burn the cathedral down.

The opening two chapters illuminate the seemingly arid recesses of university statistical configurations, for it is here among the dry patterns of program longevity and student attrition that the malign intellectual influence of the North American Ph.D. first becomes apparent. We learn that successful candidates are taking far too long to complete their programs, often attaining their degrees well into middle age, thus just commencing their formal careers when other professionals have long since become well-established. We further learn that unsuccessful candidates constitute a majority in most disciplines, withdrawing in great numbers without what they have come in bitter irony to call the terminal degree, abandoning any hope of a research or teaching career after many years of fruitless study. And, astonishingly, we at last discover that this deplorable situation has continued unchanged for half a century or more, with study after study from country after country revealing that these problems were simply disregarded by those in academic authority. The invariable patterns of these statistics underscore the fact that the problems are inherent to the program itself, rather than the era, culture or geographic setting of the study. Sadly, the history of the gathering and subsequent neglect of these melancholy figures shadows forth one indisputable conclusion: university faculties are captives to tradition, stubbornly clinging to a model that should have been revised generations ago.

Chapter three offers a sketch of modern university development, taking the reader from colonial times in America to the amazing proliferation of the North American mode of graduate study throughout the westernized world. The scientifically-based Doctor of Philosophy degree evolving at the turn of the last century within institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago swept virtually unchanged in a matter of decades from the United States to Canada, and from there to Great Britain and Europe, and thereafter across the entire westernized world. In this context I admittedly apply the term "westernized" loosely, including not only nations conventionally described as western, but also those such as Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China where the North American Ph.D. is coming to dominate intellectual and economic expansion. Mesmerized by the technological advances associated with that degree, leaders in these nations fail to perceive the full cultural implications of embracing this certificate. The program manifests itself in essentially the same form everywhere it takes root, replicating problems as well as advantages: and the experiences everywhere, whether reflected in statistics, anecdotes, or formal academic analysis, are mutually relevant ­ no matter what the culture of the nation adopting the degree. As we all rush towards globalization, we should recollect that where the North American doctorate leads, Disney and McDonald's are sure to follow.

Chapter four demonstrates that the doctorate's explosive growth was accompanied at every phase by considered criticism, sometimes politely acknowledged, but invariably consigned to oblivion. In 1903, William James warned that the Ph.D. constituted the advent of "the Mandarin disease," a certification mania destructive of finer elements in American intellectual life: and throughout the rest of the century, his concerns were endorsed and amplified by such highly-esteemed scholars as Thorstein Veblen, Abraham Flexner, William Arrowsmith, Randall Collins, Page Smith and Bruce Wilshire. Chapter five counters the widespread illusion that faculty involvement with students and subordinates is always benign, tracing the various challenges that journalists and artists have directed against self-serving faculty posturing. From Charles Sykes' iconoclastic ProfScam denouncing "Academic Man" as "this strange mutation of 20th century academia who has the pretensions of an ecclesiastic, the artfulness of a witch doctor, and the soul of a bureaucrat," through a full range of disquieting literary portraits by authors of such distinction as Thomas Mann, Kingsley Amis, Bernard Malamud, Randall Jarrell, Mary McCarthy, John Kenneth Galbraith and Robertson Davies, to the most chilling series of official reports following the Concordia massacre in Montreal, we encounter faculty malpractice as horrifyingly present in westernized academic life. Chapter six exposes as fallacious the professorial assumption of methodological reliability, revealing how methodologies vary widely, with the sciences most trustworthy and the social sciences and humanities least. Moreover, much of recent scholarship suggests that many serious intellectual problems cannot be either clearly articulated or definitively resolved, no matter what the discipline. The overall impression is one of far less certainty and far more difficulty than the glossy university brochures dare to mention.

Chapter seven focuses these insights upon the grim realities of doctoral study: unreliable or incapable faculty, indeterminate methodologies and uncertain modes of verification, and intellectual constraints and limited time for creative work, all mitigate against the very innovation supposedly constituting the central purpose of the program ' and all produce relentless pressures for conformity and mediocrity. The lyrical but carefully qualified defense of doctoral study to be found in writings like Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life takes on a much harder edge when examined from the perspective of many of the program's victims, who often tell of circumstances that every prospective graduate student should acknowledge and avoid. Chapter eight indicates the extent to which the contemporary university structure, dominated by tenured faculty, has been subverted by decades of such problems to tumble towards terminal decline. The emergence of globalized culture, the reductions in government funding, the increasing intrusion of commercial interests, and the consequent dependence upon part-time and short-term faculty: all these factors are also combining to force some form of change, with the final results still somewhat open to question. Chapter nine touches upon the most likely manifestations of the academic community in the near future. While the traditional model of the university continues to have its proponents, the relentless imperatives of economic development and the enduring fascination with matters technological must render the continuance of the current establishment quite improbable. At this dawning of the new millennium, look for the emergence of an increasingly hard-nosed and cynical academic professionalism.

Chapter ten explores some of the implications of such a development, noting that the professionalised classes, which prate on at length about ethical responsibilities, are in reality not much different from other self-motivated economic groups. As far as academic professionalism goes, society should ask whether or not the doctorate should continue to dominate the process, since there are a number of viable alternatives. Contrary to popular opinion, genuinely innovative research is often resisted by established practitioners, and people without doctoral training can make valuable contributions. Chapter eleven thus urges all concerned to consider a number of recommendations for reform, addressing the three main groups with the greatest vested interests in improvement. Those students contemplating graduate work should be aware of the many hazards of the existing programs, approaching a doctorate in the sciences with extreme caution, and evaluating a second mastership as a more viable certification in the humanities and social sciences. Those faculty intent upon positive change should recognize that the short-term contract worker will increasingly be the instructor of choice at most universities and colleges, and should devise alternatives to the creaky tenure system as safeguards of professional training, job security and academic freedom. And those members of the general public intent upon harmonious social evolution should ensure that university development proceeds equitably with other aspects of social development: education at the primary and secondary levels, for example, and comprehensive health care, and a decent standard of living for the underprivileged classes. A better university system will not of itself guarantee a better world: but it will most assuredly help.

In the early spring of 1987, the first edition of The Ph.D. Trap appeared in the form of a relatively brief monograph. Following a burst of supportive assessment in the public media, it continued quietly through two further editions, circulating almost as a campus samizdat publication while formal study after formal study emerged containing evidence confirming the little book's basic thesis. Yet none of those formal studies attempted to recognize the main problems with contemporary graduate study, much less deal with those problems in a manner conducive to reform: and therefore, to address that deficiency, this book was written. Although the original thesis is herein revisited, much of the amplifying material is entirely new, yielding a full book over twice the length of the original. It is to be hoped this more sustained presentation, appearing under the imprint of a reputable publishing firm, will gather the impetus to initiate a more significant movement towards salutary change.

Wilfred Cude  

Chapter One
Time's Toll

Whatever its possessors may say to the contrary, the North American doctor of philosophy degree is not so much about scholarly attainment as it is about power: sheer, naked, inexorable economic and social power. Originally intended as the certificate attesting specialized preparation for research in the major scholarly disciplines,...