It was 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.
I’m struggling to believe (or understand) that you got any push back. In some ways that’s even more surprising that her claiming to have a PhD when she didn’t. Hell yes, of course it’s a big deal. Apart from all the reasons you cite; bottom line she lied. Would any of the push back people really be happy with going to see a doctor that had no medical training? Would they be happy with an architect designing their house that hadn’t been trained as an architect, or a bridge builder that had not done structural engineering? She was just stupid; I can’t think of a word to describe the ‘push back people’.
Of course she should not have lied about having a PhD. Everyone agrees that people should not fabricate credentials (or work histories, for that matter) and that this is not a trivial offense.
But having said that, it seems to me that Colin Wight’s analogies are a bit off the mark in one respect. O’Bagy did not need — in a substantive or other sense — a PhD in order to do what she was doing: being a think-tank analyst/researcher and, in this case, writer of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. She has an MA and is fluent in Arabic and those are enough qualifications/credentials to do what she was doing. It’s a bit sad that she apparently felt she had to fabricate a PhD since it’s not necessary, in any sense of ‘necessary’ that I can discern, for her (now former) job.
Really? Why do you trust anything else she claims about herself?
Well you are right that she didn’t need a PhD to work in a think tank. Whether you should need one is another question. But my point was about the trust issue, as George has pointed out. You don’t actually need to be an architect to design and build a house, but if you hire someone who is claiming to be one, you’d be pretty pissed off if they weren’t. Also highlights a wider problem with our field in that just about every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be able to comment on it and get taken seriously. As yet we’ve not been able to extend the academic/professionalisation of our field to the practice of it, in the same way that lawyers have done, doctors have done, and civil engineers have done. That goes to the issue of the public perception of ‘us’ as a field that ‘polices’ the application of the knowledge we produce. Maybe we are happy with that.
LFC is on to the the point that Steve begins to acknowledge but Colin misses: the PhD is a professional license meant to keep people who could possibly do the work out of the field. It’s a method for making sure we can claim special privilege and, like has been expressed here, people are very serious about demanding that respect / honor / perks / you name it. Colin’s analogy is false in a couple of respects. The PhD (or other professional license) is useful only insofar as the first job goes. Were someone to lie about being an architect but then proceed to design a house as well as a “qualified” architect, I would be right to update my priors and consider this person now on the basis of demonstrated work. (This does not mean O’Bagy shouldn’t have been dismissed for falsifying her application, that’s a separate issue and one I am not addressing here). Steve’s post hits the nail on the head. The PhD is a badge, it is the ticket into a club, into (dare I say) an old boys (and girls) network….that’s it. Once you demonstrate the ability to design and execute research without having earned a PhD, what matters is the research, not the degree. But that research becomes a threat because it says that we PhDs are not special. This is why so many are up in arms, who oddly enough could so easily stand on the quality of their research. What’s being defended here in the institution of granting the PhD and role for senior faculty in that process. In other words, O’Bagy is a threat to our ability to make money.
A quick mention about trust. The response that I have gotten from absolutely everyone is, “Well how can you trust her?” People, PhDs falsify their research all the time! Just because you have a PhD does not mean you are somehow incapable of lying or otherwise being mendacious when it comes to your work. I’m frankly dumbfounded to hear from people of Steve, Colin, and Dan’s stature that somehow this is the issue the whole thing turns on. Well guess what…before she was outed, everyone thought she had a PhD. Are you really tying to tell me that the quality of the research changed from one moment to the next? That’s ridiculous. It was either good research or bad research, PhD or no. So kudos to Steve for perhaps the most honest take here. The PhD is a professional license meant to keep non-holders out of a club that offers special privilege. In that way, it’s no different from any other labor market restricting license.
‘People, PhDs falsify their research all the time!’ I’ll leave this comment to stand as a total indictment of the rest of the post. Seriously!
You can’t really be trying to deny that Colin. Shall we have a discussion about endlessly running regression until you get the result you want? Adding data? Being selective in your interviews? These happen and they happen for disciplinary pressures to publish or perish. So a PhD should not give you a pass, which is what some people are trying to suggest here.
Endlessly running regressions isn’t an attempt to ‘falsify, it’s just (in my opinion) based on an incorrect understanding of what they can achieve. Adding data? Well you may have missed something out. Being selective in your interviews can be a deliberate strategy to try and get what you want; if you want to know what Kissinger thought of X you’d better interview Kissinger. Nobody is saying a Phd should give you a pass, they are saying you shouldn’t say you have one if you don’t. It’s called lying. There’s lots wrong with SS research but deliberately falsifying research isn’t one of them.
Just to be clear. We are on the same page when it comes to lying. If you thought that was the argument I was trying to make, you misread my post entirely.
@Rob (and Colin): I want to make my position clear inasmuch as this conversation seems to me to be about (at least) two separate issues.
(1) Fabrication is dishonesty, which is unethical and unacceptable, and K.Kagan, who runs Inst. for Study of War where O’Bagy worked, certainly had grounds to fire her. (I’m not saying firing was necessarily the *only* proper result, but I certainly understand why Kagan fired her.) I don’t know the people involved or the details of the situation (and the links I looked at yesterday seemed a bit unclear on some of the details), so I won’t say any more on this particular point. My orig. pt. was simply that O’Bagy didn’t need the PhD, in a substantive or a conventional ‘licensing’ sense, to do what she was doing. But she should not have lied about having one; that seems obvious, at least to me. As to whether this throws her whole credibility on everything into question, (a)who knows (except those who actually know her, which I don’t), and (b)it seems largely irrelevant to the discussion.
(2) I think the PhD does function, among other things, as a license. (Of course, not everyone w a PhD gets an academic job, something I know from personal experience, not that I want to get into my personal experience here.) As for Rob’s statement that “PhDs falsify their research all the time” — the word “falsify” is strong, implying deliberate fabrication, and it may be too strong here. Results or whatever may occasionally (or more often than that) be ‘massaged’. I can only speak at first hand about my own diss., which was not quantitative. Although there are at least a couple of sentences I’d change or get rid of if I were doing it over (or if I had revised it for publication, which I didn’t) and things that certainly could be more fully supported (true of many dissertations, one would guess), there’s no falsification in it. (I say this for the record, as it were; it’s not like anyone is reading or citing it — it’s just sitting in the ProQuest database along with innumerable other dissertations.)
Thanks LFC. Yes I agreed that she didn’t need the PhD to get her job, Whether or not that ‘should’ be the case is a different matter though. This goes, as I said, to the issue of public perception of ‘professionalisation’ of fields of study. In fact, although it’s the norm you don’t have to have a PhD to get an academic job. I know of plenty of people with business expertise who work also in universities, and of course some former military people and diplomats gain academic positions. So I’d stand by my original analogies because the point they were trying to make was about the deception aspect; which I think we all agree is the major problem.
It’s also very puzzling, given that she didn’t need the PhD to get the job, why she said (if she did) that she had it. To be honest, I’m not into hanging people out to dry, and she’s young, we don’t know the full story, of how the claims about the PhD came about and so on. I also don’t want to damn her because she’s taking up a particular position on Syria that I happen to disagree with. I can see lots of scenarios that might help provide an explanation of a claim that got out of control. Nothing can excuse the deliberate deception but there might be explanations of it. Given how easy it is to check such a thing as a PhD, I’m just surprised someone who’s obviously bright, would do such a thing.
Insert standing ovation here….
While clearly O’Bagy didn’t need a Ph.D. to do her work in Washington, she may have felt that claiming to be “doktora” in her travels in the Arab world was useful.
I actually completed the course of study O’Bagy claimed– MA in Arab Studies, Ph.D. in government at Georgetown. Well before my dissertation was completed many of my Arab interlocutors deemed me “doktor,” with various mixtures of flattery and respect. I also took to referring to people as “doktor” to indicate respect.
This status inflation may have been a response also to her working in the hierarchy/patriarchy of conflict zones and conflict studies, where rank is often emblazoned on your sleeve.
If she told people on her travel that she is Doktora O’Bagy that’s one thing. But this woman lied to her boss about her credentials.
I have had a lot of pushback on this (at one stage called all but a lying monster) but your CV *is there* to be lied on. Give me a break. Its very easy for people *with* relevant credentials and impressive work histories to demand pure honesty from all job applications, but my position is, if you’re borderline and you can fake the experience you claim to have and you’re willing to live with the consequences then you lie. Simple as
If you get the job and don’t know what you’re doing then they fire you. Who cares? A Phd is a big thing to fake though, I agree. She went for it and she got caught c’est la vie. She showed a bit of initiative at least
It’s STUPID to fake a Ph.D. It’s very, very easy to determine that you didn’t do what you claimed.
Stupid yes, but nothing beyond that. Anyway, would she have been caught if she didn’t develop such a high profile?
A PhD develops very specific, specialised skills/expertise, so yeah I wouldn’t do it myself, any more than I’d claim to be fluent in French or able to programme in java (or whatever)
But really, all this hyperventilating is a bit much
(I cant see why she bothered lying tbh, fluency in Arabic must itself be a pretty sought after skill- although I’ll have to assume that’s a lie as well)*
edit: * I see you made this point above
Anyway I admire her I must say
But that’s what’s so weird. Let’s assume, for a second, that she was never in the joint MA/PhD program, i.e., that the whole “I’m getting — now I’ve gotten – a PhD” was a fabrication. What did she have to gain from that deceit? She certainly didn’t need a PhD for the kind of work that she was doing. If she’d asked me, I would have dissuaded her from investing her time for the credential.
So the question then becomes, if she’s willing to make up a rather elaborate story (I’m getting a PhD. I have my PhD. No I don’t, I’m waiting to defend. No, I’ve defended but having received the diploma. I failed my defense. Whatever the story is, the media reports are confused), then what else is she willing to misrepresent to advance her career and her policy preferences?
She may be a young woman who embellished once and then felt trapped by it. There are any number of other explanations that don’t bear on her broader credibility as an analyst. But we don’t — and probably can’t — know.
Being less contrarian on my part, I do agree her credibility is shot at the minute (leaving open the caveats above that we don’t really know how she got
into this situation etc.)
But more than that, surely the credibility of the WSJ and ISW are equally damaged. Isn’t it up to the WSJ to declare any conflict of interests that people writing for them have (and to fact check their articles)? The reputation of the newspaper itself is meant to legitimate the article to a greater degree than the author, I would have thought. The same if true for the ISW. I assume they thought having a PhD/credentialised expert at the institute gave them greater credibility, so it’s equally up to them to check and verify that as it is for her to tell the
truth. (How difficult can that be? Get a letter from a supervisor/the university, get a copy of exam results etc) Her analysis itself can also surely be checked by regional experts? Even the independent research she did on the ground (to a degree, through contacts,extensive notes etc)
I’m guessing from the ISW perspective her ability to speak Arabic was one of the main reasons she got the job, so if that turns out to be another lie that’s going to have to reflect on them pretty poorly. Language skills really aren’t difficult to test. If they aren’t checking this stuff what does it say about them? (as an addendum, I don’t know about ISWs reputation in general, so
perhaps this isn’t out of the ordinary.)
Yes. This comment seems exactly right (esp. the last sentence).
‘if you’re borderline and you can fake the experience you claim to have and you’re willing to live with the consequences then you lie.’
I must be a naive ‘hick from the sticks’; really do people actually think this is ok?
But its on the individual themselves to know when. If its something you want to build a career in, then you’re probably best being honest and trying to work around/make up for the gaps/lack of experience. If you *need* a job, then you exaggerate
Ive been told this by people I know who work in HR, employment agencies, organisations who do up your CV (I was told it when younger at ‘career guidance’lectures at university)
The job market isnt a morality play
EDIT: And its not something a ‘hick from the sticks’ wouldnt grasp.This is basically the logic of running a market stall. You put the best fruit at the front and pick from the back
Astounding to me that a career guidance counselor wd tell anyone it’s ok to exaggerate/make up/etc on their cv. I’m sure people do it and I empathize w young people in a tough job market, but it’s not ok. It’s dishonest.
Re the country context: well, that may make a difference, I’m not sure, but if it’s accepted and everyone’s doing it then doesn’t that tend to negate whatever advantage someone might hope to gain?
Yeah it negates the advantage but at least doesnt put you at a disadvantage
I know this isnt a popular position Im pushing, and I might have made the case poorly : )
Blog regarding assignment is very helpful for understudy, Students can gain information new is more helpful during proposal for phd is more better and excellent.
I would love to read more
about this phd proposal writing service as it has added a lot to my knowledge. Kindly
keep posting such information so that people like me can enhance our knowledge