Sunday, May 04, 2003

And you wondered why it is called a Doctor of Philosophy.

Josh Marshall yesterday commemorated the submission of his Ph.D. dissertation by putting the title "Dr" in front of his name on the top of his blog. (Glenn Reynolds acknowledged this by linking to him). Josh said this was only for one day, and he has now removed it. He also said that doing it was "corny and a touch obnoxious".
That it was corny and a touch obnoxious is not the point. Being corny and obnoxious is just something you do when you complete a Ph.D. It is pretty much expected. However, there is a time when you do it. When you are close to completing a thesis, people do start calling you "Doctor" when you haven't earned it yet. Once you have submitted, even more people do it. However, even if you are sure you will pass, you don't start doing it yourself until you have actually been informed (officially or unofficially) by your examiners that you have passed. (In practice, people are normally informed both unofficially and obliquely. At the end of my thesis defence I was told that "The Board of Graduate Studies forbids us from telling you the result of this examination. However, you have nothing to worry about"). Doing so is somehow tempting fate, and when you are suffering from end of Ph.D. angst, you don't want to do this. Usually your university will tell you that you are not entitled to use the title until the degree has actually been conferred, but such intructions are almost universally ignored. However, once you have been informed, you start insisting that the whole world call you "Doctor". (A friend of mine rang up her bank a few hours after her thesis defence (while drunk) to ask that they send her new credit cards with "Dr" on them). Generally you use the title for a few weeks or months, after which you slowly find you use the title less and less, and after a couple of years you are only using it when signing letters of complaint to companies that have given you poor customer service. In my case, I waited three years after finishing before actually attending a graduation ceremony, as I wanted my parents (who live in Australia) to be able to attend, and it took this long to find a date on which a degree ceremony was scheduled when we could all be in Cambridge. So, by the time I was technically entitled to use the title I had generally stopped doing so.

Still, while I will give Josh a heartily "well done" for finishing the thesis, I do consider that he has committed a faux pas. And I was a little surprised that Glenn Reynolds went along with it, but then I remembered that law is one of the few fields where it is not generally necessary for professors to have a Ph.D. This is fine, but it does mean that law professors possibly do not properly understand Ph.D. angst. A quick check informs me that the Instaman in fact does not have a Ph.D. which kind of explains things.

Josh does give a tremendous example of late Ph.D. angst, however

I pulled an all-nighter Wednesday night nursing my ancient HP 4L laser printer into churning out the two final copies of my dissertation manuscript. Then I hopped on the 6 AM train from DC to Providence to actually turn the thing in. By the time I got there most of the signatures and forms that I thought I might have to take care of had already gotten done. So it was largely a matter of physically walking the thing over to the graduate school offices and doing the actual sign in. In any case, it's finally, officially, completely done.

In a sense a dissertation is just a really long paper (I think the grand total was 326 pages, in this case). But one works on it for so long that all sorts of psychological mumbo-jumbo gets bound up in it. When I was signing it in yesterday, and the person who signs it in told me that everything on the checklist was covered, I think I asked two or three times if she was sure there wasn't any other form that needed to be turned in. Then, as I was walking out of her office ... "So, you're sure. Nothing else?" "Yes, I'm sure. That's it. You're done." I had a hard time not going back and asking again as I was walking down the hallway. But then I thought, what profiteth a man to gain his Ph.D. if he loses his dignity in the process of turning it in?

That certainly sounds like a true case of Ph.D. angst, yes. The person who accepts the forms and the disertation has a very important job. She is there to reassure people who have been writing day and night for six months, who are very stressed, and who are probably using intriguing combinations of stimulants that everything is fine and they should relax. While students in this state are often paranoid about the question of whether all the complicated bureacratic regulations have been complied with, in actual fact this isn't very important. As far as a Ph.D thesis is concerned, the only thing that matters is whether the thesis is good enough (and also, that it has not been plagiarised from someone else). As long as this is the case, no university is ever going to refuse to examine it. (Most universities even have regulations that allow theses to be accepted from people who have never even been enrolled for the degree, although normally they have to have some connection with the university if this is to be allowed).

With this in mind, a little story from my own academic career. When they are first enrolled for a Ph.D., Cambridge University assigns a due date (several years down the road) for the thesis. If the thesis is not ready by this date, the student must apply for an extension. At first these are granted automatically, but as time goes on the student is required to provide evidence that he is likely to finish his thesis sooner or later in order that the extension be granted. This regulation exists so that in the event that a student looks unlikely to ever finish, he can be told to go away and stop using university resources. As it happened, I had one of these deadlines at the end of June 1997. As it was, I didn't actually finish my thesis until early August. In theory, I should have applied for another extension, but I was too busy writing the thesis to bother with this. Technically, the university could have refused to accept my thesis. Just to be careful, I filled out the form applying for another extension, and submitted it (late) at the same time I submitted the thesis. (In the section where I had to demonstrate some evidence that I would submit a thesis some day, I wrote that "Thesis was submitted on [such and such a date]). The woman at the Board of Graduate Studies didn't seem to care much about the form, however. She took it, but I don't know what she did with it, because I never heard anything about it. I simply received a letter from the Board a few days later informing me that my thesis had been received and a date would be scheduled for the thesis defence as soon as was practicable. In fact, even if I had submitted my thesis five years after my supposed due date, it would likely have been accepted, because the regulation wasn't about refusing to accept theses that had been written or denying degrees to people who had earned them. It was instead about discouraging people who looked like never completing their degrees. In the event that someone who had been discouraged in this way did complete a thesis after all, then this was actually a good thing, and the university realised this.

While universities might occasionally be inflexible with respect to degree rules for undergraduates, this is almost never the case for Ph.D. students. A Ph.D. is a long, weird and mind-bending experience, and bureacracies generally are sympathetic about this fact.

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