How do they make doctors? (accredited version)

the-cabinet-of-dr-caligariGiven all this hullabaloo about fake doctorates, some people may be wondering what the difference between a real and fake one is. I can only speak from my experience.

Although a doctorate is recognised as the highest academic title that a person can attain, it is of course devalued in a number of ways, and not only in Serbia of course. Still, there is objection from people who have earned degrees when people with unearned ones, or people who have ones that are used inappropriately, throw them around. Ever wonder why all televangelists insist on being called “Dr” while almost no university instructors do? I have a set of more or less obvious answers to this question, and I’ll bet you do as well.

At the university where I got my postgraduate degree, what was involved in getting a doctorate? I’ll walk you through the steps. This is how the programme looked at the University of California at Berkeley, where I was a student in the Department of Sociology from 1989 until receiving my doctorate in 1997 (eight years seems like a long time, especially to Europeans, but this was the normative period at that university at that time).

First, there are two years of coursework (this is the case in the US, where many people enter doctoral programmes, as I did, without already having acquired a Master’s degree, but it is not the case in the UK, where applicants to doctoral programmes are expected to have one in hand). Everybody was required to take courses in theory and research methods, as well as to select courses both from the department and across the university in a variety of substantive fields. In each of the postgraduate seminars students were expected to submit a final essay, usually a work of original research, demonstrating mastery of the field. At the end of the two years of coursework, four of these final essays are submitted to a departmental committee which verifies that the work produced is consistent with standards in the discipline. If the work is deemed of sufficient quality, the student is invited to continue on to qualify for doctoral research. If not (and all courses were nonetheless passed), the student is offered an MA and a farewell.

Then comes the process of qualification. A committee of four professors is selected to examine the student in four fields, one of which must be theory. Together they agree on a reading list, hold periodic discussions, and when it is agreed that the student is ready, the examination is scheduled. In my case, the time passed between choosing the members of the committee and actually holding the exam lasted about a year. The examination lasts, as a rule, several hours, during which time the student is questioned both about knowledge of the fields that were chosen and about the research which will be proposed if the examination is passed. Students who pass are then invited to propose a topic and plan for the doctoral research.

Within (if I recall correctly, it might have been six) three months of passing the examination the student is expected to produce a research proposal in collaboration with the chair and members of the dissertation committee. In the same period, if the research proposed involves human subjects, it must be approved by a university-wide committee for ethical review. Only when the proposal has been approved is the student able to begin research or to apply for funding in order to be able to carry out research. At the time I went to do research in Serbia, political conditions meant that no agencies were funding US students to travel to do research there, so I financed my data gathering by borrowing money.

Then come the research and writing periods. The student spends as much time as necessary gathering data, then the normal practice is to consult with the supervising professors on writing and to submit chapters as they are completed to each member of the committee for approval. This a continuous process that goes on until the last chapter and all accompanying materials are completed.

When everything is done then the dissertation has to be revised a bit to meet the official formatting standards of the university, which include specific direction about fonts and type sizes, the sizes of margins, the placement of page numbers, styles and standards of citation, and the type of paper on which the dissertation can be printed. But the most important element (here my university was a little unique, as we did not have a formal oral defence) is the cover sheet, which must be signed by all of the members of the supervising committee. The signatures are an indication that the professors have reviewed the material, have established that it is original research of high quality, that it constitutes an original and substantive contribution to knowledge, and that the candidate is prepared to carry the title of “Doctor of Philosophy,” to supervise other candidates for academic degrees, and to function as a member of the academic community. It also involves some sillier things. I took a little extra time because one of the members of the committee refused to sign the cover sheet until I changed all of my UK-English spellings to US-English spellings.

Is it possible for some incompetent or dishonest supervisors to pass subpar work as qualifying for a doctorate? In theory, probably. However, even the submitted manuscript with all required signatures is not final: this is a recommendation to the Academic Senate, composed of all of the academic staff of the university, to award a degree. The AS does have the ability to decline the recommendation after reviewing the work in question (though I am not aware of any case in which this has happened). Similarly, each university is required to periodically submit to a process of review for accreditation, without which it loses the power to confer degrees. One of the purposes of the accreditation process is to assure that within the disciplines the same standards are applied at all institutions, so that a PhD from one university is not intrinsically more or less valuable than a PhD from another (in practice, this has probably never been achieved).

So that’s how the path to a doctorate looked at Berkeley at the time I was there. Not all universities or systems are the same, so your experience may differ. What does not differ is that every accredited university has a process in place to assure that research is original, is consistent with standards in the discipline in which it is produced, and constitutes a substantive contribution to knowledge.

If all of these steps are completed, then the new doctor is permitted to enter the profession, with no guarantees of employment or advancement in institutions that are chronically underfunded and under attack from politicians who want to turn them into something else and an increasingly corporatised administrator class who tend to view educational institutions as underexploited cash cows. A minority of the people who successfully complete this process will receive stable full time employment at a living wage.

So if you wonder why people who have been through (legitimate versions of) this process are a little bit appalled when they hear about politically connected people with no apparent abilities getting a doctoral degree awarded in a year on the basis of a written work that meets no minimum standard of competence and shows no evidence of research,  maybe it becomes a little clear. In my case, it was eight years of my life (not to be too self-dramatising, it was kind of a nice eight years, I was in California, and during that time I got married, had a lovely child, drank loads of perfectly excellent Napa Valley wine, and learned to cook in all kinds of cuisines).

I can only guess as to why the non-Drs are as appalled at the fake-Drs, but it probably has something to do with knowing how to make distinctions and being aware of the existence of people who demand not only their submission but also their honour, while clearly deserving neither one.


More limericks for Megatrend

139211_megatrend-oglas_f There was already a question about the Interior minister, but this week the story has expeanded: his academic supervisor, also the head of the university, seems to have a doctorate that nobody can find, as reported (in English, no less) by Marko Milanović and Miljana Radivojecić.



Knowledge itself is an end
on which civilisation depends;
and evidence the force
that moves forward discourse.
Alternatively, there’s Megatrend.

There’s really no purpose in crammin’
when the committee’s about to examine.
Assessment of research
can be easily purch-
-ased with cash, šljivovica or Gewürtztraminer

You could fit into a fića
all the things people can teach ya —
then drive it on home,
claim it was all your own.
Like Dr Nebojša and Dr Mića


Local government’s strategically managed,
finding it out’s not a challenge.
If you get two books, right,
that you use but don’t cite,
then look round and see whom you have damaged.

If your university is really idyllic
and oversight absent, or else imbecilic
it can cause transformations
on scholars from distant nations.
They read unknown languages, and also Cyrillic




Never seen a fake doctor before?

cvEven though no major media have been reporting it, by now you already know that the web site Peščanik (that has a link, but it may not lead you to the page because of persistent denial-of-service attacks — you can still get the English translation at Balkanist, though) published on Sunday an article by three academics from Serbia working abroad. The article examined the doctoral thesis submitted and approved last year at a fairly notorious private university by a fellow who was at the time the speaker of the Serbian parliament and is now Interior minister, Nebojša Stefanović. You probably already know basically what the article says. It gives several instances of plagiarism and is generally thin. To give an example, it has just 41 footnotes of which 29 are to the same two sources (to give an example for comparison, my latest book — which you can buy! buy! buy! — has 671 footnotes, though you might say that I am a bit of a footnote freak because, like the sitting prime minister of Serbia, I am a fan of Max Weber). That is to say, one more story of a person claiming to be something he is not, an “educational” institution claiming to do something it does not do, a government pretending to know something about itself that it does not know, and a media failing to report on the things it does know.

If you know all that then you know the story as it developed over the evening and the following day. Bots brought the site with the article down, a bunch of other sites mirrored the article, and by Monday you had the good doctor minister coming out to tell media no, trust me, I’m a doctor and the head of the “university” saying no, trust us, we’re a university. Though the rector was a little more fun because he promised a “Commission for the Defence of Megatrend.” Well, as Roxanne Shante said in a bygone age, bring it on.

Well, so what? A person does not need a doctorate to be a politician, and most politicians get by without a doctorate just fine. And it’s not like diploma mills are anything new or unknown. They’re just a symptom of a society that cannot distinguish a human quality from a credential, and people like me in the profession of credentialling sort of grudgingly tolerate these parasites much in the same way that we are not moved to fits of fury by the existence of “cheese food products” or “talent” shows on television. Plagiarism is a bit of a different matter, at is a violation of the basic principle that people in our field use to defend our ever more precarious existence, which is the credibility of our contention that we know some things because we have done some work. But even that we increasingly tend to dismiss as failures of (everyone else in) the educational system and farm out the interest in it by doing what universities do best, shovelling public money to private corporations.

In any case Mr (scusing me, Dr) Stefanović is hardly the first politician to go around with a fake or unearned degree, neither in the region nor elsewhere in the world. One of those people even had the word “zu” in the middle of his name, so it sparked a little bit of at least comical interest. But not a unique or even especially fascinating case. So why the mega interest in a micro player?

First of all, the media silence on the story comes on the heels of the flood disaster that hit Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, and one of the big elements of the story in Serbia was that voices critical of the official mismanagement of the emergency were pretty well silenced. Milica Popović has a nice summary of the concerns about censorship emerging out of the crisis, and these have not subsided. Plus people have not really forgotten about PM Vučić’s interesting engagement with the media when he was Information minister under Milošević.

Second, the incident is reflective of a lack of accountability generally. It speaks to the failure to maintain standards in education, to profiteering, to the arrogance of politicians, and to a general lack of public or regulatory control over things that matter.

Third, there is a resonance between powerful people who purchase “degrees” and the persistently high unemployment and underemployment of people who have actually earned them. It is to be expected that people who actually work in education and research would be appalled by the trade in fake credentials, but it also touches on the lives of people who have real ones that they are unable to use in the places where they live.

And finally, the various efforts to silence the story, from attacks on websites to the blockage of media coverage, seem to pull together all of these strands. The plagiarising minister has a bit part in this perfect storm of disappointment, anger, frustration and growing awareness. That it has built up around him has a bit to do with timing and luck. It is a good thing that it has built up at all.



Limericks in homage to Dr Nebojša Stefanović, Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Serbia

Nebojsa-StefanovicThe story here:

And in English here: 

Getting a PhD in Serbia has Never Been Easier: The Case of Minister of Internal Affairs Nebojša Stefanović




Dr Stefanović looked a bit quizzical,
“I don’t see why this is not admissible.
If Megatrend rates
that my insights are great
Who cares if they are not original?”



Dr Nebojša was feeling uneasy
at the state of his doctoral theesie
“I know, I’ll rewrite it
so people can cite it;
I’ll call this one “Uzroci krize’!”



It’s painfully easy to see
the quick way to a doctoral degree
Rest the thumb next to “space”
and with swiftness and grace
type Control-C and then, fast, Control-V