Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Why would I do a PhD?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
I'm heading into what I perceive to be the belly of the beast today, and attempt to bring it.
 
In this day and age, why would I do a PhD?
Where is the wisdom and philosophy in today's Doctorate of Philosophy? What defense might the status have against commodified certification, credential inflation, and otherwise collaborative and crowd sourced knowledge? How might an autodidact approach a PhD with integrity? Would they?
These are open questions looking for the heart and meaning of a PhD in today's context. Leigh will explain his approach to developing in-depth knowledge, and invite challenges, suggestions and responses to it...

The Research Office at the University of Canberra is graciously hosting this dragon's den, allowing me to facilitate a discussion that I think questions the very core of a university:


This session will take place in 2 hours from now. I'll keep notes here, and on my openPhD wiki as usual. Any comments from the network would be most welcome. While I had hoped the question would be stimulus enough, a friend advises I may need to prepare slides! In some ways, my 10 minute presentation to the Research Office in March this year might suffice, but I'll see if I can work something up now...


13 comments:

Nancy White said...

Why? I certainly have never been able to say "yes" myself, but I think I'm in a significantly different context as an independent consultant with a family. In the US it is darned expensive, and, working in the non profit sector, I could not "earn back" the cost.

I also want a very self directed program. They seem to be more expensive. :-) So the economic argument doesn't hold water.

I'd love the intellectual experience. But so far the PhD of life is winning.

For you, however, I see two really important possibilities. One is you will challenge the system. That is a given.

But I think the reverse is also important. The system will challenge you. This is important because you have a lot to contribute, but if you become disconnected from the very institutions you want to help forge, it will be harder. Does that make any sense? Presumptuous?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Leigh for your provacative question and thoughts on this topic. If you are interested in gaining knowledge, developing certain skills and contributing to the knowledge base on a given subject then I am sure that this can be (and has been) achieved outside of the PhD framework. The PhD tells us something about the rigor of your research process, the quality of your work and I think also, something about your skill set. I have never considered a PhD to be a strightjacket in terms of what you might choose to research, how you might go about the work or what your production might look like at the end. There is great potential to do something outside of the box and challenge convention if that is your desire but at least within a PhD there will be some guiding principles to help ensure a quality process and product. Deb

Steven said...

Hi Leigh

I've watched your presentation and for me there is a gap in driving home the primary driving benefit of networked learning, doing an open PhD, publishing in open formats etc and that is the simple relationship forming between people whereby the technology enhances the age old benefts of talking and sharing knowledge. Yes it can be argued that closed environments such as a LMS or intranet limit the amount of people one may may be exposed to however the quality (i.e.personal) and context of the relationships and communication bewteen people is not always suited towards an open environment.

There is for me also a glaring irony in the advocation of the 'free' tools for open networking and relationship forming such as facebook and mySpace in that they commodify human interaction and standardise ways of expressing online identity. I like your advocacy of open formats and the Mediawiki platforms as well as creative commons licencing however the conversation for me on the benefits of networked learning and doing an open PhD is very nuanced and specific to the needs of the individual. Not sure how big organisations can cater to this? I think they should focus on the human apsect the relationship building and communication techniques i.e. soft skills the networking technology is just one part of that puzzle.

"The Virtual Revolution - The Cost of Free" a good doco for contect to what I am saying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNAfnfcergc

Robyn said...

Too be honest Leigh I just can’t see the point.I agree totally with Nancy's comments.

Probably the only reason why I’d pursue a PhD now is to allow significant time to uncover truths, or instigate new ways of thinking/working in a field where the results would remain relevant in 5 years time. I have a brother for example undertaking research in the field of coastal engineering; what he uncovers and documents will be new and significant to those in his field.

Years ago I worked as a casual academic. I was overlooked for FT positions because I had only a Masters degree, so toyed with completing a PhD in order to gain permanent work in Higher Education. It’s no longer a goal; it’s not a sector I wish to be part of at this point in time in Australia. I grieve for what is happening to Higher Ed.

It will be argued that a PhD teaches the capabilities of sustained research and study, gathering and verifying evidence etc, showing wisdom in one’s field. For career researchers this is probably of value but it does not create effective facilitators of learning, and funnily enough THAT is what higher education should also be about. I’m interested in supporting learning so if I was to undertake further study it would be with the goal of expanding my thinking in my area of interest, not to gain some letters after my name. To do so I’d be connecting and conversing and debating – I’d probably pick and choose units from multiple courses. You don’t need ‘Dr’ in front of your name to demonstrate value to your field.

When I finished my undergraduate degree (a long time ago) we were sent off with the message ‘we don’t want to see you back for at least 5 years’. There was an expectation that we would go out into the workforce, live and work and experience our chosen field first hand. Further study reflected/ built on the wisdom and experiences gained. Now we see 28 year old PhD students who are professional researchers but who lack any connection with the real world. Of course it depends on your chosen field but …

Looking forward to watching the debate!

Kirsty said...

Peering over the fence at the concept of Masters/PhD myself, your post is timely!

Some questions for you - could undertaking an open PhD give you the opportunity to demonstrate the significant value to be gained from exposing the process as well as the product? Thus a real live example of how the process of open research and education can have a greater/different value to more traditional approaches. I'd see this as a solid way of progressing the cause so to speak. Working within the system to change it.

If you're going to be doing the work anyhow, then looking to what benefits/challenges the PhD journey will bring you - professional, personal - is the key from my perspective. What could it open up?

Malcolm Lewis said...

I've never been motivated to a do a Phd until now.

It has now become something I think about.

I'm interested in doing some research in application of terror management theory to real world problems. I see two ways to do this:

Do a Phd so I can really think about and do some research on a topic that really interests me? I could learn how to solve problems that are of great interest to me and I think will benefit the world. The Phd path has advantages and disadvantages. It’s lack of flexibility is a cost to me.

Another path would be do a masters and partner with some other researchers if I could interest them I what I wanted to do? As so few seem to be into terror management theory in Australia, this does not seem an easy path at this time. I could even do this without doing a Masters at all. My main motivation is solving a problem and learning big compex messy skill sets.

I guess the point is that there are options about doing a Phd. You can still explore, learn and master a topic in other ways. There are other ways of paying the bills. Work conditions in OZ Academia seems to be often toxic and no security, overwork and your open PHD seems to be pressing on a sore spot. Universities like newspapers, might be brought to their knees or at least reinvented by Web2.0 and beyond. If not this will be an issue that universities will need to worry about. Worry may turn to hostility.

If you are to way ahead of others, it means being ignored. If you are just far ahead, you can get attached. If you are a little way ahead, you can get promoted very fast indeed.

dave cormier said...

Hi Leigh,

I don't know if we ever actually chatted about this, but i spent some time here in canada talking about trying to do something like this a little over a year ago and someone reminded me of your attempts at this.

Our tragectories are similar, I think. I research, work and participate in my field in ways that some other people find useful. I have written things that some people have found encouraging and have found that some of the things I have done have spurred others to innovate and change. That to say, i have given back a little of what has been offered out in the open by you and many others in the field of education. For this... I consider myself part of the field.

The PHd kinda haunts me a little. I've never been able to find a program or a fit that works with my somewhat peculiar take on education and am not particularly interested in being 'taught a lesson' in 'real research' by a system i don't entirely see eye to eye with. I've looked into the PhD by publication route, and been following your stuff as well...

The PhD for me would be a question of job security, if I'm really honest. The majority of my educational work has been done in my spare time, and while i would love to devote more time to it, and be paid to do it more than the occasional contract and conference fee, my Masters isn't going to qualify me for the faculty position that would allow me the freedom to continue my work and feed my family.

I would LOVE to take a PhD if it meant that I could apply for funding and focus on my work full time in order to bring some order to it. That, I guess, would be the other appeal. As a 'part-timer' i have been able to get some funding, but i've never seen my way through to getting enough money to do it all the time. That, of course, and I like my day job... which makes it harder.

This isn't terribly organized... but one more thing. Many PhD programs that i've seen are very normative. They are designed to teach a given, established language, that will get you published with cautious papers in cautious journals. As a former medieval history prof of mine once said "i'm very happy that there are people out there who are specialists in stamps in florence in 1210-1215, I'm just glad I'm not them."

The beauty of the idea of an open phd is that you'd
need to have 'done the work' to even consider it. This you've done. You've participated and contributed in countless ways. And you'd want a person to do it because you didn't want him/her to become normalized, because you wanted them to push the limits. That's you. I'd want to have you in the game, full time, measuring your willingness to go beyond where we are now against the stamp knowers. I hope it works out. The open phd is inherently creative and anti-normalizing. We need that.

Seth said...

My initial thought was "If you don't know, then don't do it."

I think for you personally, the two reasons would be the credibility and ability to provide for your family (both of which were covered by other commenters). However, I don't know that either holds much weight for you. As you mentioned in your post, the enhanced credibility doesn't mean much to you, and your minimalist lifestyle requires very little in upkeep.

When I considered the PhD many people said "A PhD is a research degree." The statement is deceptively simple. I suppose then the crux for you is how you define research. I wonder how much research in the formal, traditional sense means to you. I mean this respectfully, but it seems to me that you are interested in pushing new boundaries of knowledge so much as activism for deeply cherished beliefs. There's nothing wrong with that, but part of the credibility of a PhD comes from its pursuit of knowledge pure and simple. That's why we give respect to researchers, whether it is about stamps or curing cancer. Should you decide to get a PhD the "normative" expectations that Dave refers to do not end once you have the degree.

Should you find yourself continuing forward, I find myself agreeing with Nancy White - let the system challenge you. Many of your posts express frustration that people haven't opened up their eyes. Isn't only fair to keep an open mind the other way?

I don't mean for this comment to across negative. I will definitely read future posts about the open PhD. As Dave points out, this is unique and those following your posts will learn a lot regardless of the outcome.

Keith Lyons said...

Leigh

I have really enjoyed your post, the presentation and the community's response. I wrote a live post at http://keithlyons.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/why-do-a-phd/.

I think we have momentum for an open PhD that does not compromise your ethical position.

What an exciting journey ahead.

Keith

Moulton said...

One good reason to complete a Ph.D. program is because you want to make a significant contribution to knowledge that is vetted and received by the academic community.

Lana said...

My two cents’ worth and reiteration of what all the others said, among them the following, but first my 2 cents:

We need social activists, and your slides on your open PhD are – wonderful ideas. We also need people who work well with others – and can persuade others. My suggestion: if you are charismatic (I don’t know you, and I don’t know your personality), if you combine charisma with your passion and your activism, you can effect great change. I’ve wished I were one of those people whom everyone wants to be around. (I’m congenial, but I don’t have that charisma that draws people to me like glue.) Otherwise, pull around you those who have charisma and are willing to use their personalities to help you effect change.

Also, if you want to teach – synchronously or asynchronously -- I’d really suggest getting in touch with Joe Cuseo’s ideas (his book: /Thriving in College and Beyond/. Just saw him in 2 sessions yesterday – he has some really important things to say about student learning, given that we in North America have one of the most diverse populations of students we’ve ever had, and given that they are first generation students, “traditional” students, transfers, and minorities – some prepared, some underprepared. He was inspiring.

I second these thoughts:
Robyn: if you have the “goal of expanding [your] thinking in [your] area of interest..”

Nancy:
For you, however, I see two really important possibilities. One is you will challenge the system. That is a given.

But I think the reverse is also important. The system will challenge you. This is important because you have a lot to contribute, but if you become disconnected from the very institutions you want to help forge, it will be harder. Does that make any sense? Presumptuous?

Kristy:
Lovely thought: could undertaking an open PhD give you the opportunity to demonstrate the significant value to be gained from exposing the process as well as the product? … If you're going to be doing the work anyhow, then looking to what benefits/challenges the PhD journey will bring you - professional, personal - is the key from my perspective. What could it open up?

Malcolm:
I could learn how to solve problems that are of great interest to me and I think will benefit the world.

Dave:
I would LOVE to take a PhD if it meant that I could apply for funding and focus on my work full time in order to bring some order to it. … That, of course, and I like my day job... which makes it harder.

Moulton:
One good reason to complete a Ph.D. program is because you want to make a significant contribution to knowledge that is vetted and received by the academic community.

And the others’, too.

My PhD: German literature and linguistics, of all things!

Leigh Blackall said...

Wow! everyone, many thanks for these very thoughtful posts. Every one of them. Combined with the Discussion Group had 2 days ago, I really do have lots to consider.

I think Seth and Lana are right, I approach these things as an activist and change agent.. this may or may not be a good match with that of a PhD accredited academic, but we'll see. I've devised a plan that will challenge the establish process some, so provided I can come up with the goods, we'll see what they say.

Dave, Peter, the key reason I'm asking this question is because my employer requires it of me. More than that, they are providing me some paid time (I think) and the opportunity to do it free of charge (I think - actually, I think the PhD is free in Australia for Australians.. interesting if that's true). So while I believe I have the bulk of the work to show, if I combine it with a slightly more in depth analysis and record of the work I'm doing here at UC, I think I will have something to show towards the credential. If I didn't perceived the PhD to be a requirement of the line of work I'm in, I probably wouldn't submit to it. That's not to say I wouldn't continue to strive for deeper and more thorough understanding, or to make unique and valuable contributions to the field of course! I just need some support in employment to do that..

Everyone, I've combined my notes from this discussion thread, with notes from the face to face discussion group, over on the wiki. If you're interested - please pop over there to see what you think, and feel free to add anything here or there, that you like.

Again, many thanks for your time in considering this question with me..

Leigh Blackall said...

An update blog post here.