An opinion on the PhD

I read this long article with interest as there are some issues regarding the PhD that needs to be looked into.

Based on what I read, obtaining a PhD is only the beginning towards becoming a scholar. But a scholar does not necessarily need to have a PhD to be one. And just by being a PhD holder does not mean that you would have the highest authority in your chosen field. Because according to the writer, it is only the beginning to a way bigger picture altogether.

Its more of the issue on quality rather than quantity. Read on and please share your views.

NST Online : Perspective: The PhD — is it overrated?



Malaysia needs great scholars to enlighten citizens about its politics, technology, science, nationhood and statehood
Malaysia needs great scholars to enlighten citizens about its politics, technology, science, nationhood and statehood

A doctorate is just the beginning, not the end of reading, learning and scholarship. It is the contribution to scholarship after obtaining the qualification that gives it value, writes A. MURAD MERICAN.

Malaysia needs great scholars to enlighten citizens about its politics, technology, science, nationhood and statehood

MALAYSIA hopes to produce 21,000 PhD holders by 2010 to teach in local universities. The majority are to be in science, technology and medicine.

The move to create more PhD holders is part of the National Higher Education Strategic Plan and the National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010 which was launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi last week.

A doctorate is a qualification based on satisfactory, original work demonstrated with a submission of a thesis usually after two or 2½ years full-time study under a supervisor.
Postgraduate programmes in Malaysia are now gaining momentum — the immediate reason being that more school-leavers go to universities to do their master’s and doctorates — traditionally abroad, and in recent years, in Malaysia.While the PhD has generally become a requirement for those choosing university teaching as a vocation and for career advancement in universities, the public and corporate sectors and non-governmental organisations, yet, in itself — even for a career in the university — a PhD may still be an option.

Still, would the number of PhDs necessarily make a university a better and competent place to study and contribute to the nation?

Is a PhD (from the Latin Philosophie Doctor or “teaching of philosophy”) a necessary prerequisite for scholarship (and challenging existing ones) as well as creating a vibrant intellectual community in Malaysia?

The initiative to produce more PhD holders has to specify the types of doctoral advanced degrees that Malaysia needs. A PhD is only one type of doctorate. Since the Malaysian higher education system is mainly aligned to both the American and British systems, knowing what it means in both is essential.

While the PhD is the most common doctorate, the term “doctorate” can refer to any number of doctoral degrees.

If the majority are to be in science and medicine (including engineering), then we have to classify these as vocational doctorates which would carry such nomenclatures as D Eng (for engineering), EdD (education), DBA (business administration).

Domestic universities can create such doctorates (not uncommon abroad) as Doctor of Arts (DA) or Doctor of Technology (DT). These degrees may be seen as “equivalents” to the Doctor of Philosophy degree.

In Malaysia, as well as in the United Kingdom, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy is the most junior of the doctorates and distinct from higher doctorates such as DLitt (Doctor of Letters) or DSc (Doctor of Science), which are granted on the basis of a portfolio of work submitted, usually a series of published papers, on the recommendation of a committee centred in a particular faculty.

There is a general acceptance that a PhD is equated with an intellectual. And that an intellectual is a scholar. Many, even academicians themselves, may have problems in making the distinction between a scholar and a professor.

But never mind the difference between a scholar and a professor. Suffice it to say that a professor need not necessarily be a scholar and a scholar need not necessarily be an academician and an academician may be far removed from being an intellectual. But things overlap. And the very rare ones are all four at once, plus a PhD holder.

But why the PhD? Why embark on doctoral work if it may not be critically necessary to the development of a person except for carrying the title and reinforcing the false assumption that a PhD holder would become a better academician, teacher, researcher and scholar?

All universities in Malaysia celebrate the PhD as the only form of legitimate human capital worth recognising (for promotion, reward and other perks).

A PhD holder is just a PhD holder. One need not hold a PhD to be a professor. The PhD is just the beginning, not the end of reading, learning, and scholarship. It is generally accepted that a doctorate is a small contribution to the body of knowledge. It is the contribution to scholarship after obtaining the degree that gives it value.

Most universities in Malaysia have become obsessed with the degree that those without a PhD — but who have developed scholarship and are scholars in their own right — are deemed ineligible for professorships.

In the domain of the university, what matters is discipline (and all its ramifications). A baccalaureate is also eligible for professorship if that person has demonstrated reasonable contribution to a field through teaching, research and publication besides acquiring the relevant reputation and recognition among his peers.

One can look up many universities both in the American and British systems where there are BAs who hold chairs in their respective areas. In Malaysia, academics such as the late Professor Ahmad Ibrahim and Abu Bakar Hamid do not have PhDs.

Many local academics who have contributed significantly to their areas of study are languishing in their vocations because they are not PhD holders. You don’t need a PhD to be a vice chancellor.

This is not to say that we cannot put in place initiatives to increase PhD holders in the universities but we have to be clear about our aims.

Unfortunately, many have overrated their doctorates.

Does a PhD make a man (or woman) more competent in an area? Do we make the degree or does the degree make us?

Many who have doctorates have not intellectually transformed and change should have come even before they embark on that scale of study. The temperament towards the spirit of enquiry and developing scholarship should already be embedded in their orientation and not as an afterthought.

Many also have nightmares of whether what they had gone through is a research or a thesis. There is a distinction between research for a doctorate and a thesis.

A PhD does not make a scholar. But generally the development of scholarship falls under the responsibility of those who have acquired that degree and who have completed work over a period of time and have demonstrated the potential for developing scholarship.

Given the proliferation of thesis titles that sound like term papers and research projects — and very localised too — we have to revisit the value of the PhD and the nature of supervision.

A PhD holder needs to have a certain dimension of transcendence of thought and a consciousness of his discipline.

We do not want topics like “A Survey of Undergraduate Economic Students in xxx class” or “Perceptions and Attitudes of Communication Students towards … ” or “The Use of ICT among Computer Science Students in …”

There is something wrong somewhere and such degrees are not only granted by local universities but also by those abroad.

What PhDs are we producing and what kind of programmes are our students attending locally and abroad? The latter, we cannot control but we can ensure that we do not produce mediocre PhD holders.

We do not necessarily need PhDs in professional areas such as architecture, engineering, law, accountancy, actuarial science and even journalism. In these areas, we need those who have attained the level of fellows from their respective professional/scientific societies.

A PhD in such areas serves a different purpose. But then, we also have to address the issues of experience and academic qualification.

Experience in teaching is not equivalent to academic qualification. A person with experience in industry may not be the best teacher or may not be capable of teaching at all. Industry experience and teaching ability may sometimes exist as incompatible paradigms.

If we are to embrace whatever ideals of progress, we need scholars and intellectuals as well, perhaps more than PhDs.

We need to move beyond the legacy of luminaries such as the late Syed Hussein Alatas. Malaysian universities generally do not cater to intellectual space. There is no excitement, debate and refinement in deliberations on great scholarship. Producing Nobel Prize winners does not come from a vacuum.

A country also needs great scholars to enlighten citizens about its politics, technology, science, nationhood and statehood. In quantitative terms, we cannot say that we are lacking in scientists and technologists. But we lack the thought about science and technology.

Our education system pays no attention to the history of science. What matters is the how’s and the why’s of science and technology.

We can have all the technology in the world but if we are dominated by the “vendor” mentality we will only end up being users of technology.

For our engagement with technology is not the consumption nor the creation of hardware and software but culture, thought and consciousness. Without that, we will forever be toying with the Coke bottle that fell from heaven — remember The Gods Must be Crazy?

This is the time to re-emphasise the arts. Malaysia has neglected the humanities and social sciences for more than three decades of its years of independence. Our research emphasises innovations and marketability. Along the way, we misconceptualise “soft skills”.

Our history and literature suffer in silence. Our sense of studying and comprehending society, history and philosophy for the greater good becomes disoriented by the forces of marketability and employment.

Our universities, no matter how many deliberations or announcements of change, still exist in old modes of knowing.

The state of our social sciences and the humanities still leaves much to be desired. Perhaps instituting an Academy of Social Sciences modelled on the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia, would augur well for the arts.

In some universities, the community of professors, who see itself as the creme de la creme, has developed its own orthodoxy and dogmatism, having lost the capacity to tread new paths and explore new knowledge.

Worst, they truly believe that their disciplines come from heaven — God-given in neat compartmentalised silos.

Creating 21,000 PhD university teachers does not mean that there will be an iota of dynamism in our scholarship. And a pool of up to 100,000 doctoral degree holders within 15 years? Surely, that is possible but we do not need human capital in quantitative terms.

We need paradigm bashers in the arts and sciences. Teach art and poetry to the scientist. Fundamentally there is no distinction between art and science, theory and practice.

In the first place, the 100,000 would-be doctoral degree holders must learn that such a dichotomy is false. Ask Nobel Prize winners — from medicine to physics and from literature to economics.

For the next 50 years, Malaysia needs social and intellectual progress, more than material advancement.

I fear if we are not able to produce a functioning intellectual community, we would not be able to manage and mitigate the ever-growing diversity in our midst which calls for civic tolerance and cultural pluralism embedded in enduring enlightenment.

If our universities want to be in the business of intellectual production for a progressive society, we need to revisit the humble Bachelor of Arts degree. We do not need a PhD for that.

Associate Professor Dr Ahmad Murad Merican holds a PhD (history and philosophy of science) from the University of Malaya. He has two bachelor’s degrees (journalism and political science). He has immersed himself in the College of Liberal Arts and made the Dean’s List at the University of Minnesota.

5 Responses to “An opinion on the PhD”
  1. I read this article in the newspaper a few weeks ago and felt it was very timely. Timely because our Ministry of Higher Education had just recently launched its strategic plan (which includes aiming for a few more thousand PhD holders by 2010) and some local universities are now racing to become “Apex Universities” under this plan (yup, new status-labels, dudes).

    I do think that achieving a GENUINE doctorate degree is a challenging and rewarding task. A person is forced to acquire and progress with excellent transferable skills every step of the way. From the preliminary coursework to the proper research work, involving mental debates, a well-founded written thesis and oral defence sessions, the process isn’t easy (unless one merely buys a fake PhD or DBA like some Malaysian businessmen, internet millionaires and celebrities do).

    However, more doctorate holders among our academics do not necessarily guarantee better quality education/research from our universities. When there’s no academic freedom (due to the lack of freedom of information and expression, thanks to many constitutional amendments, laws and rules which I hate to remind ourselves), then how can the pursuit of the truth (knowledge) really benefit?

    I agree with the statement that PhD holders & Professors are not necessarily scholars & intellectuals (and vice versa). In certain cases – and I’m simply adding this point on my own – some of them are NOT EVEN RESEARCHERS. To be honest, I’m not referring to those academics who don’t do much academic research work etc. What bothers me more are those who hold high academic offices but are completely prejudicial (towards certain views) and extremely biased (in believing certain people) when making crucial decisions. Does a researcher really think and act that way?

    These people, to my mind, are simply a disgrace to their own profession as “researchers”. One does not “search again” for the truth by making terribly prejudicial and biased calls. We term it as “tanpa usul periksa” (without investigation) in Malay. To me, researchers could be the best of judges, but these people I’m referring to are just politician-wannabes.

    Luckily, I’ve also met many PhD holders and Professors who are very humble and do not expect their views to “conquer everyone else’s” (despite all the knowledge and educated justifications that they have in reaching their conclusions). To me, this is what the pursuit of knowledge is supposed to teach a person; Humility. The more one learns about the world, the more one discovers how much one does not really know.

  2. Oh yeah, the last sentence of my previous comment was supposed to be this but there were too many “one”s in one sentence:

    “The more one learns about the world, the more one discovers how much one does not really know.”

    Dah la that comment so long one… hehehe..

    • ira says:

      the more a scholar research, the more he/she should be able to answer questions. but are we human beings able to answer all questions in our mind as Allah knows more that we wants to know more.. the more we research, we would want to know more.. and more.. and more.. knowledge never ends.. same like we cant find the rainbow.. the more we look for it the more its goes…

      “aku mencari pelangi itu”

  3. hanafijamil says:

    Seorang scholar tanpa PHD yg pernah debat dgn orang yang ada Dr atau Professor dan lain2, dlm topik agama, adalah Allahyarham Sheikh Ahmad Deedat. Sesetengah mungkin kata dia Bible scholar..tapi dia Islamic Scholar. Kita kat sekolah dulu mungkin ada dengar kisah dia..tapi skang ni banyak video dia kat youtube boleh cari dgn keyword “Ahmad Deedat”. Kat sini aku selitkan salah satu video yg aku selitkan kat web aku:

    ni koleksi video Ahmad Deedat:

    Balik kepada topik, aku setujulah pandangan Wira..hihihihi. Ahmad Deedat di atas hanya sebagai living proof(sekarang dah, seorang scholar tak semestinya ada PHD.

  4. Fleeting says:

    I am very happy I found your site on orkut. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my boyfriend were just preparing to do some research about this. I am very happy to see such trusted info being shared freely out there.
    Best wishes,
    Forester from Tucson city

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