What’s to Remain of the PhD?

by Andrei Marga
translated from Romanian by Stâncel Theodora-Eva

Once the PhD was considered to be the key to scientific formation. The subject and the proportion, of the PhD thesis foreshadowed the scientific personality, and the university was as strong the professors that illustrated it were prestigious.
In recent decades the importance of the PhD has faded away. France and Germany abandoned the superior PhD and encouraged, indirectly, the leveling down of PhDs. In almost every European country the number of PhD title owners has increased, as a consequence of the enlargement of the university preparation and the aura of the titles was reduced. The narrowing of the majors has encouraged the change in the very way of promoting the PhD, everywhere, which has modified the PhD thesis and has diminished its relevance.
In some countries such as Romania, it was rapidly registered in the past few years almost every negative change: the leveling down, the trivialization and the decrease of relevance. Also, the regulation of the PhD studies, by government decision nr. 567 (from June 15, 2005) has managed the unique performance in Europe, of legalizing a mediocre preparation: the idea of the “doctoral studies”, launched by the “Babes-Bolyai University” in 2002, has been degraded to the level of a mere schooling of a PhD aspirer, the concentration focused on the PhD thesis has been dissolved in bureaucracy, and the PhDs-instead of being subsidized (as in referential countries such as the USA , the UK, Germany, and so on)- are sent to pay for their studies.
Considering this context, reflections upon the PhD are not just welcomed but indispensable and urgent. It cannot be called “University” an institution that doesn’t bring its PhD to advanced / competitive level. There cannot be a forefront “University” when the teachers do not own well-done PhDs. The PhDs obtained in universities, be they occidental, which reside under the indulgence of “good for l’Orient”, are not, of course, solutions. It is gladdening and symptomatic that the referential countries set again the tone for a debate for the release of the PhD.
I am looking in my turn, to respond to the question “ what should be mended, without delay, at the Romanian PhD, at least at the level of the effective research and of the PhD thesis?” I let myself be stimulated by the excellent reflection initiated in 2004 under the title Carnegie Initiative of Doctorate, that arrived to a debate regarding the “conceptual foundation of doctoral education” starting from the experience of six fields of activity: chemistry, pedagogy, English, history, mathematics, neurosciences. There have been published important analyses (such as Catharine Stimpson, Words and responsibilities. Graduate education in humanities, 2004; Steven Hyman, Neurosciences and the Doctorate, 2004; Hyman Bass, The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. The case of Mathematics 2003;Yehuda Elkana, Unmasking Uncertainties and Embracing Contradiction: Graduate Education in the Sciences, 2004 and so on) not just for the aimed at, but for the entire spectrum of PhD theses. I want to resume my point of view, regarding the previous question, in five recommendations.
Many PhD theses are affected from the very beginning by a problem: the choice of the subject is made randomly (“ it is the way I agreed with my scientific coordinator”, “I felt that the subject was important” and so on), or subjectively (“I am passionate about the theme”, “ the issue obsesses me” and so on). However, no competitive doctoral thesis can come out of this kind of choosing of the subject matter! Considering the importance of the question in any sort of knowledge approach, it must be consigned that the “ formulation of the subject of PhD theses” should be of another sort in the Romanian system. While saying that I take into account the need to consider the “map” of the respective domain, to assume interdisciplinary problems and also to research open problems that are relevant for the increase of knowledge (not just under the form of acquiring data, but also under the form of its argumentative integration) and practical reasons. Only under such minimal conditions regarding the formulation of the problem, can a PhD thesis be in the same time, a scientific research and deserves its name.
IT is known that the today’s narrow majors have encouraged the decrease of critical reflection within the PhD theses. The candidates take too little into consideration the effective situation of knowledge in the respective discipline and usually undermine existent theories and interpretations. This undermining diminishes, in its turn, from he very beginning the value of PhD theses. The antidote is represented by the cultivation of critical reflection of the PhD over state of the discipline, the preparation of the candidate in formative disciplines, as scientific theory, argumentative theory, and the his placement form the very beginning in the posture of “independent research”.
A familiarization of the candidate with the theoretical fundaments of the discipline is presupposed by the satisfaction of the requirements from above. Few of the candidates to the PhD are conscientious of the theory, tradition, paradigm in which is placed the formation and research that they initiate. They usually operate with naïve assumptions regarding knowledge. Orienting the PhD theses towards the testing of acknowledged theories, traditions, and paradigms and by observing the problems by which these “no longer work, can prevent this situation. There cannot be relevant theses without intellectual courage: it’s about assuming risks, as it was often said, without becoming Don Quijote and staking on self reliance within rational limits. “Risk-taking and rigor” (Elkana), is certainly, the rational motto.
It is impossible to practice this motto but by the candidate that masters the literature of the problem. This presupposes the mastering of high circulation languages and those with priority in the particular discipline. Take into consideration that in our dissertations, the larger context of the discipline is as well an emergency, as it directly conditions the value of PhD papers. To reach the “frontiers” of the disciplines- where many of the novelties of knowledge are produced in our era, to master the “discipline field” in order to be able to launch the “intellectual initiative” are indispensable things. To perceive the difference in capacity of theories, traditions, paradigms and to explore limits, rather than acknowledged successes, remain pre-supplies of competitive PhD theses.
A competitive PhD thesis has to assume a problem and offer an answer. Problem solving is a more profound shaping of knowledge than any other. For this reason, the theses that culminate with state descriptions do not become competitive. The candidate is asked to profile the solution he suggests, to be able to integrate it in the “field of activity of the discipline”, to argument the cognitive relevance, but also the relevance of other nature (pragmatic, social, cultural and so on) of his work. However this claims once again, for him to be conscientious of the fundaments, history, and evolution of the discipline. Thus he becomes, not only formerly but also in reality, a doctor in that field of activity.

What’s to Remain of the PhD?

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