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.

3 thoughts on “How do they make doctors? (accredited version)

  1. Non-Drs are also appalled because of the health hazards implicit in the widespread public use of the title by persons with no medical training whatsoever – you inhabit a rather modest subset of your peer community.

    But thanks for that very clear exposition for us outsiders.

  2. By the way you deserve a professorship for your research into Tongan philately. My gold-edged deckled certificate will be in the post to you.

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