Degrees, scientific accomplishment, and academic elitism

by Chuck Doswell

Posted: 27 November 2007 Updated: Whenever

Yet another opinion of mine. As usual, comments can be sent to, but don't bother unless you're willing to have your comments posted here along with my response.

Recent experience has reminded me of a continuing source of injustice within the research and academic world.  That is, the assignment of virtually mandatory status for the doctoral degree.  This is a sort of academic salute to itself - a not uncommon thing in academia, which seems often to be breaking its own arms patting itself on the back.  In order to participate in the game, and be afforded the full respect a scientist deserves on the basis of accomplishments, a doctorate is deemed essential.  Lacking it, a scientist faces mostly closed doors when seeking employment in top flight academic and research institutions. 

It’s axiomatic that many who seek degrees in science find themselves running up against a major roadblock along the degree path.  For many meteorologists, it’s mathematics that is the main stumbling block.  Because of math phobia, many who seek graduate degrees in meteorology find themselves shut out of the game.  I could go into this problem in its own right, having experienced math phobia for many years, finally overcoming that problem, but that's not my point with this essay.  Because of that phobia, I feared that I wouldn't be able to achieve my dream of becoming a scientist.   The short version of the story is that I was able to get over that barrier and at that point I realized I could make it all the way, after all.  Fine for me. 

Not so fine for many budding meteorologists.  For others, less fortunate than I, their goals of advanced degrees had to be cut short, not necessarily just for math phobia, but for myriad reasons.  Nevertheless, a few have persevered in their desire to be involved in science, somehow. If not as fully independent researchers, then being a "support" scientist was a way to stay involved.   Some of them have gone on to significant accomplishments, including numerous publications in refereed scientific journals.  In my view of the world, the accomplishments of such scientists outweigh whatever doubts might accrue from their lack of academic “credentials”.  As I see it, the goal of a doctoral degree should be that we as faculty have guided the development of our students to the point where they can go out into the real world and begin to do publishable scientific research on their own.  The granting of a degree says, essentially, that we can do no more for such students, and their further growth into contributing membership in our scientific profession necessarily can (and must) be self-guided.

So if a person without such a diploma is capable of publishable research, have they not demonstrated the capability to do what our doctoral degree recipients should be striving to accomplish?  Have they not demonstrated by virtue of their efforts that they deserve to be considered full members of our profession?  Must their accomplishments be viewed as secondary to their lack of a piece of paper?  Should their work always be stigmatized with an “asterisk”?

I’m not saying that the process of obtaining a doctoral degree has no value in its own right.  Having been through the process and seen how beneficial the academic experience can be if your attitude toward it is right, I'd be the last person to discredit the value of obtaining a doctorate.  If you can do so, you should do so if your goal is to do independent research or be accepted into an academic institution.  But I also know people who have doctorates who are incompetent nitwits - whose research achievements amount to little or nothing.  Nevertheless, they seem to be accorded full respect simply because of a piece of paper.

In my experience, my colleague, Les Lemon is the poster child for those whose research capabilities have consistently been overshadowed during their careers by his lack of academic credentials.  Never mind that he’s made enormous contributions to the science of severe storms meteorology, especially in the application of radar technology to the problem of severe storms.  He’s suffered job discrimination several times that I know of  simply for lack of a doctorate, despite his hard work, insight, and enthusiasm.  Surely he deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding his lack of diplomas.  He would be an extremely valuable teacher at the highest levels of graduate education and any academic program would benefit tremendously from having him on its faculty.  And he would be a major asset to any research program in any organization dedicated to severe storms meteorology.  But he continues to be disrespected and discriminated against for no good reason.  It’s been my pleasure to have worked with him in the past and I have the highest regard for his knowledge and dedication to the science we both love.  I hope to work with him again in the near future.

Does his lack of a piece a paper mean that there are limits to his capabilities?  Certainly.  But can anyone with that precious diploma honestly say that their are no limits to their capabilities?   I think not.  We all have limited capabilities, but it should be our achievements that matter, not whether or not we have this or that diploma.  Science should not be about diplomas. It should be about making contributions to the field by virtue of the ideas and efforts of its contributors.  We should be willing to overlook trivia such as diplomas when the body of work makes it clear that the individual is functioning at the level of publishing results in refereed journals.  If we must go though the motions of awarding a degree, let one of the individual’s published papers serve as the dissertation and skip the rest of the formalities,

I’ve known other successful scientists who have experienced discrimination as a direct result of not having doctorates despite their numerous, important research achievements:  Jim Fankhauser and David Baumhefner come to mind.  I’m certain there are others.  This injustice infuriates me.

What we seem to have here is a manifestation of academic elitism.  All one must have to join this academic “fraternity” is a piece of paper, but without it, you can never be afforded due respect, whatever your research accomplishments might be.  To my thinking, this is a bullshit view of the world.  Let the respect be afforded the research achievements and ignore the academic elitism.  If someone achieves great work without the benefit of an academic education at the doctoral level, does that not deserve more respect rather than less?  The body of work for a publishing scientist is the only measure that makes any sense, and if that work was done without the wisdom imparted by gaining a degree, this seems to reflect a greater degree of self-motivation and effort than jumping through the hoops of some academic program.

Let me repeat, it is quite possible to gain a great deal from an academic process, but the diploma is by no means a guarantee of success in research.  So is not successful research the functional equivalent of a doctorate?  I don’t accept the notion that the lack of a doctorate necessarily means that the individual is inferior and not worthy of respect for his/her research.  Let’s move past this outmoded notion, perhaps a hangover from medieval thinking.