The B.S. octopus

Jonathan Bate, of Standpoint, recently wrote an essay “The wrong idea of a university”:

It used to work like this. Dr Bloggs, the brilliant scholar who had solved the problem of the variant quartos of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, was one of the most boring teachers on God’s Earth. Mr Nobbs, who never got around to finishing his PhD on the image of the sea in English Literature, let alone publishing any academic articles, was an awe-inspiring teacher: he had read everything and could instil in his students a passion for the subject that would stay with them all their lives. All the Head of the English Department had to do was give Nobbs a heavy teaching load, which delighted both him and the students, and Bloggs a light one, which also delighted the students and gave him more time alone with his textual collations. The department was a happy place.

But then along came the RAE. Bloggs’s work was just the stuff to bring the department the money that came with a five-star rating. Nobbs, to the distress of the students, was pensioned off as “non-returnable”. The next generation of academics learnt the lesson. They finished their PhDs and started up new journals in which to get their work published. They developed more and more specialised areas of expertise. (The RAE is Research Assessment Exercise, an attempt to quantify academic quality in England.)

In proof that university politics have not changed in the 100 years since William James wrote his now-famous essay “The PhD Octopus“, there is this quote:

Some years ago, we had at our Harvard Graduate School a very brilliant student of Philosophy, who, after leaving us and supporting himself by literary labor for three years, received an appointment to teach English Literature at a sister-institution of learning. The governors of this institution, however, had no sooner communicated the appointment than they made the awful discovery that they had enrolled upon their staff a person who was unprovided with the Ph.D. degree. The man in question had been satisfied to work at Philosophy for her own sweet (or bitter) sake, and had disdained to consider that an academic bauble should be his reward.

His appointment had thus been made under a misunderstanding. He was not the proper man; and there was nothing to do but inform him of the fact. It was notified to him by his new President that his appointment must be revoked, or that a Harvard doctor’s degree must forthwith be procured. (Be sure to read the rest of this essay.)

It will probably always be thus at universities: no PhD, no respect. Good thing nobody told Einstein, however, who had his miracle year long before he actually had the credentials to do so. Good thing, too, that nobody told the editors of the journals where he submitted his papers, nor did anyone notify readers of those journals of the lack of Einstein’s bona fides.

Actually, in areas like physics, chemistry, math, and so on, lack of credentials is still not a barrier for authors to gain consideration. Anybody is free to submit a paper, and due to the blinded, or ever double-blinded, refereeing policies at these journals, the paper will get something like a fair hearing. If the paper is published, still nobody will know that the person who wrote it lacks certification (unless, of course, somebody knows the person).

Incidentally, medicine is an exception to this rule. Every paper in medical journals list the authors’ credentials after their names. Papers are festooned with MDs, MPHs, DDS, EDDs, DOs, PhDs, and every other possible combination of letters. I have even seen some with the lowly BS. I have been unable to find any other field—I have looked in English, sociology, history, and so on—that maintains this silly practice. The argument of Appeal to Authority remains strong in medicine. Too, these authors like to see their degrees displayed prominently. Well, who didn’t know that physicians have large egos? (When medical co-authors ask me for my letters, I tell them “HS”, which I almost got away with once until a journal editor caught it. HS = High School.)

Although anybody is free to submit papers regardless of their formal education, few to none will actually work for a university as a professor without the actual blessing. This is so well know as to be unexceptional. It is not usually the professors in the department who employ a teacher sans PhD that care. I have known two exceptional men who were welcomed, more than welcomed, in their departments in spite of their lack of letters. It is usually the administration who insist. They see the spreadsheet before them with a blank column by the man’s name and they balk, unable and unwilling to grant the title “professor”, regardless of the teacher’s ability, unless that column can be filled in. But, however, this has been the way of the world for at least the last century.

What is more pernicious, is that the desire for credentials has spread to nearly every area in society. People used to be able to get jobs with nothing more than high school educations. While it’s probably true that the content of a high school education nowadays is less than it used to be, it is still sufficient to allow somebody to, for example, be an assistant manager of Jamba Juice. That company, we learn from, is soliciting applications for the position, advising applicants that a “Bachelor’s” degree is preferred. Do you really need a BS or BA to learn how to prepare and pour a smoothie? Like many job postings, this one merely says “degree wanted” and is indifferent to the field of study. Proof that the “degree” is not a necessity.

It is true that, generally, more knowledge is better than less, and that colleges attempt to give students more. But it is not clear that what colleges attempt to teach is the sort of knowledge that is useful to being a manager at Jamba Juice. Nor is it even close to true that the only or best or ideal way to gain knowledge is by attending college, especially to acquire job-specific knowledge.

A typical answer from students about why they are attending college is “to get a degree.” Note carefully that this is not the same as “to learn all about biology” or physics, or English literature, or whatever. Or to learn how to be a better citizen or lead an examined life or become, as the hackneyed phrase has it, “well rounded.” Some will say they are at college to “get an education”, which is synonymous with “get a degree”, because, as I hope you know, education is not equivalent to knowledge.

Getting a degree, and not necessarily gaining knowledge, is a rational thing for students to do. This is because they know, as we have just seen, that employers explicitly require “degrees.” It is true that some employers also require field-specific knowledge, but this is not stressed strongly or at all for entry-level candidates. Businesses will teach people what they need to know to do their jobs once they get there. Except in certain highly technical areas, where some competency with computers and an extensive numeracy are expected. Students can gain these skills in college, but they could just as easily have attained them in a trade school in half the time at half the cost. But more and more, non-technical, non-complex jobs require Bachelor’s degrees, mainly because, well, because businesses have convinced themselves “degrees” are needed.

On the whole, employers—and civilians, too—view a Bachelor’s “degree” as something magical, imbuing its holder with special powers—but not necessarily special knowledge. You’ll have heard stories of some person, wholly competent in her job, who is paid a low salary because she has not yet attained her “degree.” Once she comes by it, she is immediately given a raise, because people with “degrees” of course rate a higher salary. Or you might know of another person who everybody agrees should be promoted and given extra responsibility, but, sorry, no degree, so the promotion cannot be given. Everybody is heartily sorry for it, of course, but what can they do? It’s a degree we’re talking about, after all.

It is true that knowing whether a person has advanced educational credentials helps predicts whether they will be to accomplish some task. But it is not wholly predictive, and not even mostly predictive. People are fooling themselves by weighing the evidence of letters after a name too strongly. It has also been observed that the more education a person has the less likely that person will admit a mistake or ignorance on any subject.

A host of “experts” have exploded into public life over the past twenty or thirty years. There is a credentialed expert for any subject imaginable, ready to be drug out and placed onto television to say why this or that is so. Businesses regularly host expensive consultants with “MBAs” from “good schools” to tell them how to do their jobs. Government routinely taps academia to justify or give blessing to what it wants to do. The letters after the name of the expert are enough for most people to accept what is uttered unquestioningly. Having somebody make decisions for you is also comforting and easy. Objecting too what an expert says, unless the dissident is at least as credentialed as the expert, is seen as distasteful, and even in some cases immoral (see two posts back). There is much more to say on this subject, but for now we can note that the old rule that the best argument wins has been lost.

I don’t think anything can stop or reverse this trend of the increasing hunger for degrees. Jobs that used to require nothing except intelligence now require a Bachelor’s. Some of them prefer a Master’s. Soon, a PhD will be the minimum. But we should all remember the words of Frank Mundus, the famous (uncredentialed) shark hunter whose life partly formed the basis for the fisherman Quint character in the book and movie Jaws. Some “PhDs” once took exception to a belief he espoused about a certain behavior in sharks. Mundus was proved right and the “experts” wrong. In reply he said, “A PhD don’t mean shit.”

Amen, brother.

By the way, in case you were nervous, your author (me) has a PhD in statistics from Cornell, so you know I know what I’m talking about.


  1. Karl Zimmerman

    Amen. “Degree creep” is actually a major problem. Even worse are the “useless degrees.” My waitress at breakfast this morning had a BS–and it got her no further than waiting tables, which she could have done without an HS diploma. To add to this, I also remember a PhD in Florida who said (on national TV) that she couldn’t figure out how to vote in the 2000 elections, so a PhD doesn’t say much, either…

    I have the B.S./more of same (MS)/piled higher and deeper (PhD) progression myself, and I can say one thing with certainty–it means very little, except that I spent a lot of time, money, and effort to get three letters and a not-too-tacky piece of paper. The effort did not make me a better engineer, and I learned absolutely nothing about teaching, but “PhD” sure looks nice at first glace on my business card. (The P.E. after my name doesn’t necessarily mean much, either–I know P.E.s who shouldn’t be P.E.s.) Technically, I am not practicing engineering in an area of competency because I have no education training, which is a violation of professional ethics, but teaching university students requires a doctorate that doesn’t involve teaching as a skill. Go figure. Maybe that’s why engineering students don’t think much of their undergraduate educations.

    “Degree creep” won’t improve. Pretty soon I won’t have enough letters after my name to publish…


  2. Sylvain

    OMG, can I relate to that.

    I myself have a more extensive and varied education than many people with a degree. I don’t have a degree so I’ve been disregarded for many job that I was more than qualified.

    To give an idea I have enough “cégep” credit for three diploma. But since the credit are from different field of study, they can’t be combined into degree.

    Last summer, something funny happened, I was offer a job because the person who was hiring was impress by my credentials. The job was the kind that no degree was necessary, but what is necessary is to love getting covered in grease and working with your hand. Two things I don’t enjoy.

  3. Bob North

    REading this I immediately thought of the scene behind the curtain with the Wizard and the scarecrow

    The Wizard: Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity! Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have. But! They have one thing you haven’t got! A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.

    Scarecrow: “Th.D.”?

    The Wizard: That’s, er, “Doctor of Thinkology”.

  4. Joy

    Mr Briggs:

    Brilliant post. It’s rare to see an academic that has not caught “intellectual snobbery“ .

    Shame that in the foolish drive to give everyone a prize, the gifted or truly hard working student is lost in the numbers of less well-motivated individuals. Meanwhile those without a degree are seen as more odd/inferior than ever before.

    It has been a less than clever way for government to hide unemployment statistics. I wonder if employers demand degree qualification in lieu of more careful interviewing for roles that require honesty, diligence or good old-fashioned common sense in the vain hope that if they have a degree such traits will naturally accompany the graduate. Or maybe degrees are so common now that they are considered a basic. Like a car that doesn’t have Electric windows and a CD player.

    So no one wins in the end. The students who went to university for want of anything better to do have been put unnecessarily through three years of nonsense and are still lost for what to do. The ones who didn’t go are now freaks, and the bright students don’t shine as bright amidst the huge numbers who were given similar recognition as the subjects are dumbed down.

    Intellectual snobbery is alive and well in healthcare, but on a practical level, there has been a move away from the military hierarchical model on which the NHS for example was established. I have heard from colleagues who have worked in the US that this is not the case across the pond.

    Mr North:
    I love that scene, thank you for the quote. Bet you know it off by heart!

  5. Luis Dias

    Unfortunately, I have to report that this “need” for PhD’s in my country is true as well. I think it’s a global disease. A pandemic?

  6. Tony

    I studied for all of my degrees at evening classes while working full time and raising a family. During my studies I actually learned to do useful things for my employers. Yet when I completed my first degree I was earning only slightly more than a person who had completed their studies full time with no industrial experience. Still at the time that I finished my undergraduate studies, I changed jobs and went to a much greater salary. A friend of mine who had completed his undergraduate and Masters programs while working and his PhD full time went to a post-doc position at a much lower salary. So I suppose that at least in the world of the post doc all of that academic experience is devalued against real experience.

  7. Craig Moore

    Think of the PhD as the symbol of one who has constructed words into layered context that resembles something that is Piled Higher and Deeper than the last person to tackle the same subject.

  8. Dave Andrews

    What is more pernicious, is that the desire for credentials has spread to nearly every area in society. People used to be able to get jobs with nothing more than high school educations.

    This is so true here in the UK. Ten years ago the Labour Government decided that a target of 50% of students going to university was necessary. In, and of itself, that target seemed eminently reasonable, except the level of graduate jobs available to satisfy that target is just not there.

    So graduates find they have to take higher degrees to ‘stand out’. Meanwhile those students who did well in their ‘A levels’ ( the highest qualification available from pre university schooling) now have to compete with university graduates for the types of jobs that they could usually command beforehand. And so it goes down the chain so that those poor unfortunates who are at the bottom now have far fewer opportunites than ever.

  9. Joe Triscari

    I’ve been an engineer for 20 years and the most incompetent engineers I’ve worked with have all had Ph.D.s. Some of the most competent have been high school graduates.

    There is nothing more wearying than hearing someone try to be authoritative with academic credentials – I know I’m in for a tedious interaction.

  10. I played the degree game to maximum benefit for myself. I had completed my B.S. Meteorology degree, but didn’t like the career prospects (who knew that I could have gained fame and fortune working with the Hansen Gang at Goddard?). I had an equal interest in software development, but despite my existing skills, I knew I couldn’t get a job in that field without a degree in Computer Science.

    I was planning to get a second bachelor’s degree, but my father suggested I try to go straight for a master’s. Wonder of wonders, it all worked out, despite the fact that I was not exactly the motivated researcher. I admitted to everyone (except my advisor) that all I was interested in was a piece of paper that said “Computer Science” on it, and I did exactly the amount of work necessary to accomplish that goal.

    Lazy or shrewd? I hope my post-graduation employers would say the latter!

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