When in 1978 one of my lecturers advised me to do a PhD, I followed the advice for one reason only: I had developed a strong curiosity about my proposed research theme (bless my enthusiasm!) and I wanted the opportunity to dig deep. I did not have the slightest concern about what this would do for me in career terms. That was another day’s problem, and right now I was ready to dive into the scholarship pool. If I had taken a moment to think, I’m sure I would have concluded that my post-PhD career options were not that fundamentally different from my pre-PhD ones. In 1978 it was not yet an expectation that academics must have doctorates, and in my field in particular most didn’t. Of course I did become an academic of sorts, but I wasn’t particularly anticipating that as I applied to Cambridge to become a research postgraduate.
Nowadays such unfocused thinking would need to be filed under crazy. If you have the intellectual curiosity and talent to do a PhD, then you’re on your way to a lectureship (or a professorship, for any readers here from TCD, bless you). Or is there some other option? Over recent years universities have seriously increased their intake of postgraduate research students. While I was President of Dublin City University we increased our annual PhD graduations tenfold, and indeed as we did so we were under some pressure from the government to take this even further. The reason for all this was not so that we could appoint more and more academic staff, but because an advanced knowledge economy needs qualified researchers, and lots of them. But in fact I am not talking about doctoral graduates in theology, philosophy, classics or even English; I am talking about areas like biotechnology and electronic engineering.
So does this mean that we want science doctors, but not humanities ones? Probably that is how it is, but we may need to think again. If the intellectual discipline of science research creates useful graduates for careers outside the academy, then there really should be room for humanities researchers also. But exactly who is waiting to recruit theology doctors?
While all this is a complex matter of higher education policy, there have been some interesting suggestions. One of these was made recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, Michael Ruse, is himself an interesting person, being a philosopher of biology. The suggestion he has put out there is that we should reconsider the PhD dissertation, and look at alternative models. This might include replacing the long, scholarly dissertation with shorter pieces that could be subjected to criticism, thus turning the research into something that will be both scholarly and more practical. In fact, this is something that has been pioneered in some taught doctoral programmes, such as the Doctor of Business Administration.
It stands to reason that a degree that a few decades ago catered for a tiny minority of scholars who were in it solely for the intellectual fun cannot absolutely expect to be handled the same way today. We should not lose the cerebral excitement of original research, but we might want to look again at how we expect people to pursue it and how we will assess what they have done. Nothing can stay the same for ever.