Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Demise of the Ph.D.

   "Are you going to get a Ph.D?"
I get this question a lot, since I teach at a college with only a Master's. Just a Master's. A friendly non-academic man mocked me once when I made light of my degree. I think less than 10% of people in the U.S. have an advanced degree, but, when you work at a university, it's not that spectacular.
I felt even less spectacular when one of my co-workers threw his Ph.D in my face recently. No one had ever done that to me before, and it was quite offensive. I realize that I must've offended him first, and that was his counter-strike. I don't know for sure, because it wasn't my intention to offend him.
   But there I was, standing in his office, describing this great new book I had found for a class we both teach. We rose quickly to a spirited debate, and he suddenly said "the people with Ph.D.'s will make this decision."
   I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Maybe there's really not a good way to respond to something as debasing as that, without digging out my inner redneck and calling him some words I learned from my Dad. No, I'm better than that. Really. But my respect for the guy dissolved like a styrofoam cup in acetone.

   The problem with insulting people by throwing your degree in their face is that you demean yourself in the process. I know another Ph.D guy in the building, a younger, fresher face with a witty sense of humor. He casually mentioned in conversation one day that he questions anyone who tosses their degree out for any sort of justification. "I know what it takes to get a Ph.D," he said, shaking his head. "And I'm not impressed."
I had actually never heard a Ph.D. say that before. And the guy teaches physics, so you can't accuse him of having a pansy Ph.D. or anything.

   Earlier this year, I attended the funeral for a famous rocket scientist. He was considered one of the world's pioneering experts on rocket propulsion, and his wife shared an interesting story during his eulogy. They had tried to get an honorary Ph.D. for him, but had not been successful. This must've bothered him, or why else would his wife have mentioned it to everyone? At the time I was thinking to myself, "Who cares?" The guy was in his nineties, he was retired, he was famous, he was well-loved and very highly respected. What in the world could having an honorary Ph.D. add to that?
   Ironically, I was attending that service with a man who has not one, but two honorary Ph.D.s. My mentor, my friend, my hero, the infamous Dr. Dr. Richard B. Hoover was sitting next to me as I was pondering all of this. I will have to ask him what his honorary Ph.D.s mean to him. It will be interesting to hear, partly because he wasn't the one who told me when he earned them. It was his wife, Miss Miriam, who sent me e-mails (during different years) when he received his honors.

   Will I ever get a Ph.D? I don't know, but first I'll have to actually want one.

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