A Hospital for Those Infected with Ph.D.

Most of my advisors tell me something to the effect that they don’t know any PhD grad who doesn’t get 5 years out and hate their dissertation, think the opposite of what they wrote, etc. In BYU Religious Education, this takes an interesting form. While it is true that there is a major concern on the part of those who are thinking about a job in RelEd over whether they will lose all touch with their field, research agenda, etc., there is also an explicit attitude expressed by members of the search committees with regard to the influence of the PhD experience. I have heard from more than one source that people on the hiring committees routinely ask something like the following of potential candidates coming out of PhD programs (i.e., non-CES-track hires): “Robert J. Matthews [of blessed memory] used to say that it takes seven years for people to get the PhD out of their system. What do you think he meant by that?”

For me, the major difference between my advisors’ statements about the degree/my own feelings about it, and what I’ve heard from my sources about certain BYU RelEd faculty, is the overt pathological language: While I might think that the PhD is a stepping stone, an activity wherein the process is the important thing and not necessarily the finished product, the BYU RelEd attitude seems to be that the PhD is something you “recover from” or “get over” as you would a serious illness. It is like Chemotherapy: necessary but sickening nearly to death. Or, alternatively, it is a result of substance abuse: After the PhD you have to sober up from Dissertating Under the Influence. Serious counseling and behavior modification is necessary if the victim is to be fully integrated into healthy, normal society.

What do you think he meant?

16 Replies to “A Hospital for Those Infected with Ph.D.”

  1. My advisor tells me that finishing the dissertation takes a single, narrow focus to the exclusion of nearly everything else in one’s life. Once in an academic position, that level of focus would not be possible due to teaching and service commitments.

  2. Great post and an interesting issue. It seems that there are at least two ways to take this. 1) As kew says, a dissertation requires a degree of narrowness and specialization, or perhaps limits one’s abilities in certain ways like too much of an ego or misplaced expectations in teaching. 2) It means that one is supposed to forget all that fancy knowledge one learned out in the “world.” Hearing the quote second or third hand, it is perhaps impossible to say what he meant by it, but one hopes that those using the quote now don’t mean 2.

  3. Four years in a Ph.D program is not enough to master any serious subject. Often newly minted Ph.Ds think that they know a lot more about even their dissertation than they do — or can in the short period of a very intensive program. If one hasn’t been able to learn enough in an additional seven years that one’s own dissertation isn’t severely limited and that those who have been around awhile know a heck of a lot more than thought, then the wannabe professor is able dead or forgot how to learn.

  4. It seems to me that thinking that one knows everything is hardly a symptom unique to recent PhDs, and seems to affect those without them or those who’ve had them for a long time just as frequently.

  5. “Four years in a Ph.D program…”

    Four years?! Four years in my neck of the woods buys you course work and maybe, if you are moving at light-speed, completed comprehensives. That being said, none of us knows anything, really.

  6. You’re right Oudenos. Four years is a wussy PhD program. Average in my program was about 9, I believe. Four years coursework for everyone.

    I understood from the business students PhDs, though, that 3 years was about standard for them, and if you weren’t done at 4, it meant you were really slacking. So, different standards for different programs.

  7. g.wesley, something like that. Perhaps by the time I am 50 I will have the degree, a job, tenure, and I will have convalesced to the point where the “Ph.D is out of my system.” And maybe then I will have completely figured out how to deal with the tension and anxiety that you addressed in your previous post. 50 isn’t a bad goal for having it made, right?

  8. Robert J. Matthews [of blessed memory] used to say that it takes seven years for people to get the PhD out of their system. What do you think he meant by that?

    Is “Who’s Robert Matthews?” an acceptable answer?

  9. This is why I am resisting actually writing my dissertation…I do not want to make my knowledge too narrow.

    One reading of the quote could be that it takes about 7 years to move completely on to new projects…but the context of BYU religious ed makes me suspicious.

  10. It’s been more than a decade, and I can’t tell you off the top of my head what were the theorems in my dissertation. In my case, it was watching my friends (who finished the year before I did) go through an academic job search — grateful to get a post-doc anywhere, knowing they’ll have to pull up their roots and do it all again in a year or two. I didn’t love research passionately enough to go through that. Not when there’s plenty of interesting and gainful work in software engineering…

    I’m glad I got my Ph.D., and — even though I don’t use the specifics of my dissertation in my daily life — it has absolutely trained me on how to learn a whole subject on my own. I think the experience of doing Math research prepared me for my career in IT better than an engineering degree would have (or perhaps just differently, but it’s useful on a team to have a different styles).

    I’m not sure if my math/tech experience parallels your experience in getting a Ph.D. in religion, but perhaps it does.

  11. True, SmallAxe, but his dissertation was actually pioneering, important stuff, not an analysis of the seminary program in 1930 or something like the other PhDs out of BYU. His work established that a) the RLDS Church had not tampered with the manuscripts of the JST, and therefore b) the text was reliable. It’s after that that we begin to see usage of the JST in official and scholarly LDS discourse. Matthews literally wrote the book on it.

  12. Sounds like Matthews did some important work; and I do believe that an analysis of the seminary program in 1930 could be equally important. The issue, as it relates to this post, is that Matthews did his PhD at BYU (as well as his BA and MA). The range of what he could mean by “getting the PhD out of their system” should be restricted by that fact. I’m not sure he could mean that one must detox from all the intellectualism involved in acquiring the degree, unless he’s implying that such intellectualism is already in RelEd or he’s speaking beyond the situation he’s familiar with.

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