PhD or Not a PhD

12 September 2013, 0923 EDT

It wafake ducks perhaps appropriate that yesterday’s tale of a young pundit’s career unraveling due to falsely claimed PhD coincided with the first meeting of the Doctoral Research Seminar I am teaching. Elizabeth O’Bagy had given the impression that she had finished her dissertation, but apparently not so much.  After tweeting about it, I got some push back–how big of a sin is this?  Do academics have a role in gate-keeping/outing those who lie about their credentials?

My answers: big in academia and hell, yeah.  To clarify this, let’s focus on what a PhD is.  It is not a certificate that says you can pundit.  One can pundit with or without a PhD.  You can even profess without one–lots of adjuncts and visiting assistant professors do not have PhDs or other terminal degrees (law degrees, MFA’s, MBA’s, whatever).  Even some tenured folks do not have PhDs as they may be policy-makers who have left the policy world to teach.

A PhD is this: an indicator that someone took classes beyond undergrad, passed comprehensive exams to demonstrate that they have a good understanding of the previous scholarship in their field, defended their dissertation proposal (more on that in a second), written and defended their dissertation.  That is it.  But because the last couple of steps are pretty big ones, when someone says they did when they didn’t, well, we get upset.

The dissertation is a piece of original research that contributes to our knowledge.  Given that people have been studying this stuff (whatever the field is) for decades/centuries, being original and making a contribution are not easy tasks at all.  Indeed, the hardest part of a dissertation for many is coming up with the question. Graduate students learn how to rip apart other people’s work, but creating is really hard, which is why many people bust out either before defending their proposal or before completing the research.  We tend to do lots of gymnastics to prove that there is an existing “gap” in the research, that our work is counter-intuitive–much of this is try to make an argument that the dissertation is original and would make a contribution.

The proposal’s first task then is to persuade people that the question, the answer, and/or the method is original.  The second task is to prove that the research is well-designed–does the methodology reflect best practices?  The third task, which is related to the second, is to prove that it is feasible.

So, coming up with a dissertation proposal is actually pretty hard.  It provides the roadmap for the rest of the process.  My course is focused on getting students through to the proposal.  Once you defend the proposal, you are “all but dissertation”–ABD.  But that D is still a big challenge–independent work, engaging in extensive research and writing–that many folks cannot overcome.   Those that do have to defend their dissertation in front of their dissertation committee (and some also have external examiners far away review it as well).  This is actually the least hard part of the process, as most students will not defend the dissertation until they are ready.  Some have deadlines and push the defense before they are ready, or they didn’t respond to the feedback received in previous rounds.

The point is that this is a pretty significant accomplishment–designing and then executing a hunk of original research.  The idea is that if you do it once, you can do it again and again.  Indeed, the grant proposal I am currently writing is not unlike the dissertation proposal I wrote twenty-two years ago, except it is shorter and it involves a team of researchers.

If you have not completed these tasks and claim that you have, then those who have completed these tasks will legitimately be upset.  We are a lousy guild in most ways, but we as a community of badge-holders are entitled by the work we did to earn the badge to point out when someone is wearing a badge they don’t deserve.

What happens next is not our responsibility–a good pundit who lies about their credentials must still be able to save their career.*  But that is on them and their potential employers.  Our responsibility is to protect the value of the badge by pointing out when folks falsely claim to have accomplished what it took years for us to accomplish.

* Some might suggest that if O’Bagy was male, she would not have gotten fired.  Well, a male got fired for having a controversial (and probably quite crappy) dissertation, so it may or may not be about sexism.  The bigger bias is between those who have established careers and connections and those who have not.  I am always stunned to see the big failures from past administrations get TV time and op-ed space (that would be Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and countless others).  If O’Bagy gets shunned and these guys not, that is a bit of injustice.

As in all things, don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time.  Oh, and lying about having a PhD is one of the stupidest things to do since it is very easy to prove–took the DC community less than a day.