1.1 Teachers of Philosophy

Ph.D. means literary “teacher of philosophy”, from Latin Philosophiae Doctor, abbreviated  to Ph.D, sometimes, as at Oxford, also D.Phil.

With this definition in mind, and a practical approach, I started a careful examination of everyone I knew to be a teacher of philosophy. In the following days, I observed lecturers, researchers and some professors strolling around, going to seminars, gathering for meetings, having a coffee break and casually chatting in the corridors. It didn’t take me long to perceive a certain discrepancy between the observation and the image I had in mind of teachers of philosophy. Such image was somehow impressed upon me by the famous painting ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, which depicts a hall in which Plato and Aristotle are surrounded by other famous ancient philosophers.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. The detail is from a picture of the whole painting available on wikipedia.

The inconsistency grows even more when scrutinising the teachers-to-be, or Ph.D. students, who on average—although there are exceptions—cannot be seen during morning hours, walk around with music players, wear trainers and sloppy T-shirts, and have a cheerful and carefree, only occasionally downcast, appearance. One of course must take into consideration that music players and trainers did not exist in the ancient Greece, and fashion had not produced fancy T-shirts yet. However, even making allowances for all the aspects that modernity has introduced, it seems still clear that the current meaning of Ph.D. does not match the literal meaning of teacher of philosophy.

My first attempt to find out what Ph.D. is then appears to have gone amiss. Yet, the fact that the term Ph.D. does not match well the current, practical meaning is a possible source of confusion itself. After such investigation, one feels that universities ought to provide some further definition of Ph.D., there must be some general definition that describes the real meaning, or core, that makes a degree be called Ph.D. And that is what I’ll try to find out.


1.2 Panta Rei

In the previous post, I summoned the ancient philosophers in my apparently catastrophic attempt to explain the term Ph.D. My succinct analysis is however not entirely fair; although it seems clear that modern doctorates are not best described as teachers of philosophy, or even just philosophers, the term derives from the academic tradition and should not be seen just as a pretentious label attached to a university degree. After an investigation on the historical course of the degree, I discovered the motivations that caused such denomination to arrive to our days. An important fact to be considered is that the term philosophy itself has changed meaning during the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the disciplines that were not classified as theology, medicine and law were all defined as philosophy.

At a more informal level, a wit comment posted by Stian after my previous post outlined how philosophers and modern academics have more in common than one could initially think. It is true that ancient philosophers were in fact the first academics.

Then, it is perhaps worth casting a further glance at the painting “School of Athens” before moving forward: on the lower left, another famous philosopher, Heraclitus , is taking some notes after a sudden inspiration that apparently came upon him while looking at his knee.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. Detail depicting Heraclitus .

This is an important moment; here at the very school of Athens we find already the seed of change, or at least the awareness of such change: Heraclitus’s philosophy was later encapsulated in the famous aphorism “Panta rei”, meaning everything is in flux, everything changes constantly. There is little doubt that if Heraclitus could see Ph.D. nowadays, he would be utterly dumbstruck to discover how right his theory was after all.

It was a long way though, and the Ph.D. title didn’t just came into being one sunny morning while a yawning professor stared at his knee. It was in the Middle Ages that the European universities started to award the first Doctorate degrees as forms of habilitation for teaching. The records tell us that Bologna University awarded the first Doctorate degrees in Civil Law at the end of the 12th century. But it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the Ph.D. awarded by German universities was adopted by American universities as well. In that period, American bachelors, attracted by the prestige of German universities, would travel to Europe to earn a German Ph.D. The influence was such that in 1861 Yale University awarded the first Ph.D. and in 1876 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore set rigid standards to make the U.S. Ph.D. comparable to the German degree. From the U.S. the degree spread to Canada and back to Europe in the 20th century. Although Ph.D. is a rather popular degree nowadays, there are many kind of Doctorate degrees: the Encyclopaedia Americana reports a list of 20 Doctorate degrees, from Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L) to Doctor of Science.
The history of Ph.D. is indeed a jungle of degrees and conventions among many countries and universities. I shall inevitably refer to the many accounts on encyclopaedias for further details.

At this point, after a bit of historical background, I’m somehow pressed to leave the past and dive into the current life, hoping also to keep up the interest of my eleven readers. In the next post I will crawl the Net in search of hints on the modern Ph.D. world.


1.3 A definition of Ph.D.?

By searching define PhDdefine PhD degree, define doctorate, PhD definition, and other combinations on major search engines, I was prompted with a number of dictionaries, university pages and reference web-sites. By reading those that appeared more relevant, I gathered that a PhD—from now on I will omit the dots—“normally follows a Master’s degree; it can take several years to complete, depending on the area of speciality; it’s the highest academic degree offered“.

Keywords such as degree, academia, and several years to complete are probably enough to convince most readers to click away in less than no time. Yet, for those that are still interested, the few lines above leave the reader with much uncertainty. For example, a PhD follows a Master’s degree in the majority of the cases, but this is not always true. We learn that it can take several years, but that sounds more like a foreboding warning rather than a precise information. The only positive aspect is that a PhD is the highest academic degree offered, which is undoubtedly appealing.

Sometimes an appealing feature such as “the highest academic degree” could represent a  sufficient and obtrusive argument to shadow other questions. If my highest ambition was indeed to obtain the highest academic degree, or my objectives in life could be achieved only by means of it, other aspects and details would become of secondary importance, and I would be prepared to undertake anything that comes with it. When important achievements are being pursed, one cares less for the detail. Perhaps it is due to this, to the charm that transpires from the degree of doctor of philosophy, that critical quests for the meaning of PhD become blunt in a hazy cloud of glamour. Our need for a better understanding saps in the varnished light of the highest academic degree.

In the attempt of describing and understanding the meaning of PhD, we must disregard the alleged prestige of the doctorate degree, and continue critically our investigation. I found it surprisingly difficult to gather more established information that was not tailored to a specific program, subject or university. Collecting bits of definitions here and there, I managed to draft a longer description of PhD:

a PhD degree is intended to teach a student to carry out independent, autonomous research in a specific field. The minimum duration of such training is three years. On completion, a student should present and defend a dissertation or thesis before an academic panel. The content of the dissertation should constitute novel and original research that advances the knowledge in the specific field, and as such proves the capability of the candidate to carry out independent research.

The concise description that I have attempted is an average of many scattered documents that do not find an official and unanimous ratification among universities. Therefore, PhD degrees are put into practice according to a wide variety of procedures and requirements. For instance, Wikipedia pages offer a list of descriptions of PhDs in many countries, from Australia to the U.S. After perusing a number of documents, I was convinced that each country, each university, and even each supervisor, have their own interpretation of PhD.

A reason for such diversity could be sought in key-point of the description above: what does it mean actually to be able to carry out independent research? What is the procedure for achieving that, how different it is from other jobs, and what does one really need to learn? It is from these questions that a multitude and divergence of opinions arise. Nearly everyone I interviewed on the subject seemed to have a slightly different belief on those topics. How to educate a student, how to transfer knowledge, methodology and skills is not easily agreed upon. It is perhaps from these diverse views and opinions that PhD studies inherit that mark of vagueness, and so long as two supervisors will think differently, there will be at least two different ideas of PhD.

Defining the meaning of PhD in a precise manner does not appear a simple task, and perhaps it is not the best way to understand its meaning and implications.