When not to do a PhD?

I came across Leigh Blackall’s blog post today – How and Why I’ll do a PhD – via Twitter – maybe Twitter does have some benefits after all.

This post has intrigued me as I have gone through the ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ do a PhD thinking myself.

So my first question for Leigh is – How can you be sure that you would be accepted for a PhD even if you applied for one?

I did recently apply for a PhD  (Doctoral Programme in E-Research & Technology Enhanced Learning).  At first I wasn’t accepted – they had received twice as many applications as they had places for and – I discovered through some back channels – they felt that I wasn’t the right fit for the cohort they were selecting. I had felt that my application was strong because I have already published under my own steam and have a clear idea of my research interests – but I also made it clear that I am past retirement age, so a PhD would not be for a career, but for interest in research. Later they decided to run a second parallel cohort and offered me a place, but by then I was doubting the value of it all anyhow, I had received advice from colleagues that made me question the wisdom of pigeon holing myself into a narrow research area for 3 or 4 years, and being in my seventh decade had more carefully considered whether I wanted to spend £11000 on a piece of paper that wasn’t going to take me anywhere – I am no longer thinking about a career. So I think it worked out OK. I am not going to do a PhD and I hope to continue to work collaboratively on research projects with colleagues who I really value and respect and continue to learn more about subjects in which I am interested.

So that’s me – but what of Leigh Blackhall? My second question is about the ethics of what he has decided to do. He has raised this himself. I definitely agree with his principles about openness and that PhD work is usually seen by only a few people – unless you are Lilia Efimova – but her PhD was about blogging and therefore included blogging. I have recently been sitting in on some sessions for PhD students (I am hoping to write some online support materials for PhD students) and have been quite disturbed by the way in which they are being advised to be very cautious about sharing their work – because their original ideas might be taken by others and then they might find it difficult to claim that their work is original when it comes to the PhD viva. I blogged about this here. The PhD students are very concerned about this. They can’t sort out in their heads if they are even able to have discussions about their research with others – other students or other work colleagues. How sad is that?

So I can sympathise with Leigh and in my view he definitely does have an ethical problem – not only because he has criticised the institutions from whom he hopes ultimately to get  PhD, but also because by even going for a PhD he is endorsing the notion of it that he purports to dislike.

Another question I have is – Will a university accept a PhD which has not been registered? How will, Leigh be able to establish that his research is original? I love the fact that he has opened a wiki about it (like Lilia’s blog), but will this compromise his ability to prove its originality?

Leigh has written:

I recognise the value of focused, sustained research and investigation, resulting in a well communicated, extensive summary of that, as a valuable process for me as an individual, and for a wider knowledge society.

But I know from experience that you don’t have to be on a formal course (PhD or otherwise) to do this.

So, Leigh, I don’t quite get it – why do you think a PhD necessary for you? It is hard to establish a reputation without a PhD, but not impossible, e.g. Peter Checkland is a world renowned figure for soft systems methodology and has numerous honorary doctorates, but does not have a PhD. I should say at this point that many of my friends/colleagues have PhDs or are working for PhDs, and I really respect their work. A decision to do a PhD has to be an individual one, but my friends/colleagues are not questioning whether or not they should be doing, or should have done a PhD.

A final thought – when I finally decided after much deliberation, rejection, acceptance and deferral to reject the idea of doing a PhD – a number of my friends/colleagues asked me why I don’t go for a PhD by publication, i.e. through publishing a given number of articles in high rated journals. These could be worked on collaboratively, but I would need to prove that my personal contribution was original and that I led the research team. I have considered this, but feel that I am doing this anyhow – I don’t need to pay £11000 to get the letters PhD after my name – but it seems like a preferable alternative to the possibility of being too narrowly focussed for 3 or 4 years.

And to finish off – Leigh has written

I expect the combination of the established criteria of a PhD, with my own unruly approach to it, will teach all involved a thing or two, even if it results in the credential not being awarded, and me accepting this failure.

Sorry Leigh – but I don’t think that you can assume that your PhD/research will teach anyone anything. If it does – then it’s a wonderful bonus – but perhaps you should primarily do this for yourself – not for your institution or for your network or for your family.

2 thoughts on “When not to do a PhD?

  1. leighblackall November 7, 2010 / 8:54 pm

    Hi Jenny, thanks for this, your situation only confirms for me more, why we need to develop a new approach to the project and possibly credential of phd. One thing I’d like to discover, is who something called Doctor of Philosophy became so narrow in scope, and so bedded in bureaucracy? The name gives a different impression to what most people seem to think it involves. Based on the common understanding, we should rename what they refer to as Master of Research.

    Your questions:

    1. I don’t know if they would accept me. Probably not actually, having only completed a BA and with average marks, some 13 years ago! This sort of crude, meaningless gate keeping is precisely the point I would seek another approach. Its part of the ethical dilemma of being associated with such a dumb and belittling culture. At least in my country, they have an alternative entry called Professional PhD. They couldn’t deprive themselves of all that revenue for long, could they.

    2. Not sure that you are asking a question here. The ethical dilemma is strong. And seeing the process of phd can in truth be replicated informally, the real reason I’m compelled to do it, is largely because my employer requires it.

    3. Will the university accept the role of assessing work that did not register to start? Well considering that a phd here does not require coursework, I’d like to know why it can’t. It has been explained to me that government funding to the university for processing phds requires a minimum of 2 years enrollment of a student. Not to worry, I could submit my work for assessment, wait 2 years for a reply, and variations on that theme. But I’m banking on an RPL option (recognition of prior learning) its a form of assessment usually applied in vocational and undergrad courses.

    4. A phd is necessary for me, if I am to continue the benefit of being paid to do what I do.

    Hope that answers your questions okay. Not sure what to say to your final remark. I’m quite confident that my approach will challenge many. Already I know for a fact that using open wikis and crowd sourced knowledge production is something not considered by our research office before, so there’s something ive brought to their awareness at least.

  2. jennymackness November 8, 2010 / 8:17 pm

    Hi Leigh – thanks so much for your prompt reply. I’m completely with you on the idea of developing a new approach to PhDs – particularly with regard to openness. The idea of an openPhD definitely appeals and it would be great if we could find institutions that would endorse this approach. I suppose for me – the ideal would be that research and scholarship could be recognised by an institution in the absence of a PhD and that there wouldn’t be this pressure on people to do one.

    My experience is though that openness brings with it all sorts of contradictions and that for it to be experienced in it’s true spirit, there needs to be some associated constraints and that is maybe where a far-sighted university could add to making the notion of an open PhD a reality for the majority rather than for the minority.

    I would like to see an end to this nonsense of whose name goes first on a paper, and this excessive claiming that ideas can be owned by someone – but it’s easy for me to say this as I am not trying to establish a career or a reputation. I think what you are doing is much braver and I hope you succeed. I will be watching your progress on your wiki and blog with genuine interest.


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