Dilbert Explains PhDs

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The following little interchange comes from a Dilbert comic that was printed this week. I read it and laughed.

Guy with a goatee, “Hi. I’m very smart, but I don’t know how to do anything.”

Dilbert, “Where did you get your PH.D?”

Goatee, “I didn’t say I have a PH.D.”

Dilbert, “You kinda did.”

I suppose I found it funny because I’ve heard it before, I’ve experienced it, and its kinda true.

It reminded me of one of the stories told multiple times about C. S. Lewis. He finished his Oxford degree, and his family supported him for an extra year to study an additional subject, English literature, while he looked for a position as a fellow at one of the Oxford colleges. He struggled to find a position teaching philosophy, and his family worried that if he did not find a position, there was nothing else he could do to support himself. He finally found a position in English, but never earned a PH.D. The story still is applicable. His first academic book became a classic that graduate students working on Ph.Ds. in medieval literature still must read, an “eroding classic” as one of my graduate professors, himself a student of Lewis’s, called it. Several Lewis’s students went on to earn their own doctorates and became prominent as scholars. Lewis didn’t need one.

Those of us who have been through it, understand the Dilbert cartoon, even if we don’t like it. But there is something deeper here that we and our students must come to grips with. I’ll try to explain it from my experience and from working as an academic administrator with a couple of dozen professors who have finished their doctorates while working at FPU over the last two decades, and other large group hired with new degrees in hand.

It may well be true that those with the PH.D are not the most practical of people. That is for the simple reason that they are deliberately trained not to be.  The final part of their academic program is the dissertation. They must essentially write a book, where they focus on a narrow topic that no one has worked on before, resolve a problem, dig out all the relevant evidence, test or apply theories with which they are working, develop an original solution, and defend it against any and all challenges. This is enough to train one to think, “I’m very smart.” And for others to think and sometimes say you “don’t know how to do anything.”

The deeper issue, it seems to me, is not either of these responses, however.  It is rather that the work we do in earning a typical doctorate is in itself intellectually destabilizing. We learn to focus intently on a very small problem. We zero in on the evidence and look for every bit of it possible to find. We interpret the evidence in multiple ways. We argue as strongly as possible to defend our thesis. We may apply a particular theoretical perspective and argue that it is the appropriate and most correct, or only correct theory. And we are trained to defend it—if we can’t defend it, the degree is not granted.

In addition, by the time we are done, we may have spent several years thinking about it. We’ve been absorbed in it so long, and so intently, that it has become such a part of us that it has taken over our way of thinking and seeing. We loose balance and might sound like we think we are experts in lots of other things. Or we sound like we are so narrow in our understanding that we are of no practical relevance.

In my experience, it sometimes takes up to five years to regain balance, to see it all in a broader perspective and recognize that it really was small thing in the great scheme not only of life, but even of our subject matter. I have watched numbers of our professors go through the pattern of over-concentration, exacting thoroughness on a relatively minor issue, intense defense of their work or claims, to arrive after few years at a more balanced perspective, appreciative of other conclusions and perspectives.

I should be transparent and say that after I finished my dissertation, I put it aside for about 5 years out of fear that it was probably not worth much, and because I was frankly tired of it. I read it after that and thought that the argument still worked,  but that there we several sections that needed revision before publishing it, even sections I was earlier ready to defend without reserve. I was relieved that it still seemed generally to make sense. I read it another fifteen years later or so and discovered that there was one section that I wasn’t sure I understood and was pretty sure I had muddled up.

It’s after those five years, or whatever it takes, that we really become creative teachers and scholars, and perhaps we learn to do something. Our students learn to put up with us. They recognize our enthusiasms. Where else can you find people who are intrigued by problems that others have not even thought of, but which might have relevance, continuing importance, and offer insight to students? If we are sometime a little eccentric, laugh with us. We recognize it. It is, in my experience, an occupational hazard.

I haven’t mentioned how all of this plays out in university meetings, the attempt to formulate a policy or plan, and to get agreement on practical solutions to problems. But you can find this addressed in a number of comic novels set in universities. They will make you laugh. I, for one, am happy to be the source of your enjoyment. I laugh too.

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