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Ph.D.s promoted for wrong reasons

Philip Reed | Tuesday, October 16, 2007

There has been a recent push by our administration for more undergraduates to consider earning a Ph.D. President John Jenkins first made this appeal in an address to the faculty on Sept. 11. “We must do a better job of sending our graduates to Ph.D. programs,” he said. Since his address, The Observer has printed two front page articles reporting the administration’s desire for more Ph.D.s and how they are trying to achieve it.

The University wants more undergraduates to consider doctoral studies because “only” about five percent of Notre Dame undergraduates go on to enter Ph.D. programs. The administration thinks that this number is too small compared with our “peer institutions” like Princeton and Stanford. So, Fr. Jenkins concluded in his speech, “that five percent number must rise.”

The justification for sending more Notre Dame students to Ph.D. programs is self-serving. It does not ask whether it is actually good for the students to get a doctorate. Notre Dame undergraduates probably are more likely to consider a life devoted to family or social work than undergraduates at Princeton would. Will our students flourish more with their Ph.D.s in hand than in these other alternatives? The administration does not seem concerned with this question. “That five percent number must rise.”

The administration’s position is also potentially misleading to undergraduates, since there are many good reasons not to enter Ph.D. programs. In the first place and most obviously, there are too many students already in Ph.D. programs and too few jobs, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Second, earning a doctoral degree poses its own set of challenges and pressures. Most people would hate it. The thought of attending school for six or more years after being in school one’s whole life is often unthinkable.

When I was an undergraduate, I remember advice that one professor gave to a group of students interested in Ph.D. programs in the humanities: “If you think you will be just as happy doing something else, then do that thing.” He did not necessarily intend to discourage students from considering Ph.D.s. Rather, he recognized, in a way that Notre Dame’s administration does not seem to, that at the very least Ph.D. programs should not be entered into lightly.

In short, there’s no reason to think that creating intellectual leaders or promoting the life of the mind requires a certain percentage of students to earn Ph.D.s. Notre Dame should not pursue policies merely in order to make itself look better. And we should expect a university dedicated to liberal education to understand that.

Philip Reed

graduate student

off campus

Oct. 16