By searching define PhD, define 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.