The quality of doctoral programs [Part 1]

By | June 21, 2014
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Recently, there was a discussion on one of the LinkedIn boards about whether there was less value attached to a degree from a for-profit university rather than a more traditional non-profit one. This discussion inevitably becomes confounded with the value of online degrees vs. face-to-face ones, since most of the for-profit programs are online, entirely or primarily. I’m probably qualified to comment on this issue, since I’ve taught for many years at the doctoral level, both in traditional university programs and in online programs, both nonprofit and for-profit. I’ve chaired about 50 doctoral committees, and been on at least that many again committees. So I’ve seen some of everything.

I have a sort of peculiar perspective on doctoral programs, one not universally shared. I believe that doctoral study is all about the dissertation. The PhD is a research degree, and the dissertation is documentation of the understanding of research that entitles the author to the degree. If the dissertation is not completed effectively, then time spent in the process by both student and faculty is, if not precisely wasted, at least less than completely rewarded. Thus, a properly designed doctoral program of study ought to begin with a clear understanding of the dissertation enterprise, and then be structured backward so as to approach that enterprise most effectively. I’ll elaborate on this design issue in another column soon. For now, let’s stipulate that the purpose of doctoral coursework ought to be to facilitate the development of the dissertation – the research interests and skills needed to support such a document – rather than to impart knowledge per se.

In all programs, the instructor encounters a range of abilities, commitment, interests, and preparation among the students. In smaller, more traditional FTF programs, this range is generally smaller and concentrated toward the high end, so that the instructor doesn’t have to worry as much about student variations. Most of these students will eventually write dissertations of acceptable quality and graduate. Programs often vary in focus. When I taught in the Organizational Psychology program at the Claremont Graduate School, students generally aimed for academic careers; when I moved to a similar program at the California School of Professional Psychology, they were primarily focused on management consulting. Dissertations in both programs were rigorous, well written, and academically respectable, although their focus may have differed somewhat.

Online programs, whether nonprofit or for-profit, generally have a wider range, more open toward the lower end, and a larger number of students who are generally unprepared for high-quality doctoral work and who are unlikely to graduate. On the other hand, I have had students in all-online for-profit doctoral programs (some of whom I never actually met FTF) who were easily the equals of any I had in more traditional programs, and who went on to write excellent dissertations and have successful careers even in current academia. One can’t automatically assume anything about the abilities, qualifications, or accomplishments of a student based solely on the nature of his/her doctoral program.

Online programs in general and for-profit programs in particular do tend to have larger concentrations of students whose orientation toward doctoral education is what one might call “instrumental” rather than academic. These are typically people for whom the possession of a doctoral degree means professional standing and advancement rather than academic achievement – for example, school administrators, mid-level bureaucrats, and those aspiring to set up independent professional practices in consulting. While they are often quite able students, they are less interested in abstract ideas and theoretical problems than in “how-do-I-finish-this-in-the-shortest-possible-acceptable-time” issues. Their work is generally acceptable if something less than academically inspired. They are what one might call “Chapter 4 doctors” rather than “Chapter 5 doctors”. [Stay tuned for Part 2 which will explain that distinction.]

So if you want an academic career (which these days almost always means life as a lower-paid contingent adjunct, regardless of your preparation), then probably a traditional program is better for you. An online institution can give you a real doctorate, whose quality can range from excellent to mediocre depending on the school; if you’re primarily looking for the degree rather than the research you can do after you get it, this is a better option. If you’re looking at such a degree and want to evaluate its quality, ask the holder to describe his/her dissertation research; it should be pretty easy to identify what’s a real doctorate and what is less than up to snuff.

[Part 2 will follow shortly.]