Here’s what completing a real PhD involves

On Monday I receive my doctorate from the University of Victoria. It represents four-and-a-half years of hard work, frustration and triumph, and after nearly 11 years of post-secondary education, it led to my first permanent job - a coveted t


by Adam Gaudry

On Monday I receive my doctorate from the University of Victoria. It represents four-and-a-half years of hard work, frustration and triumph, and after nearly 11 years of post-secondary education, it led to my first permanent job – a coveted tenure track position at a major research university.

A PhD is a lot of work, and rightfully so. It represents the highest level of intellectual qualification, and is as much a trial of endurance as it is a measure of intelligence. Having so recently given over years of my life to this pursuit, I laughed out loud when I came across the story of a senior Yukon civil servant who could have done as little work as reading six books and writing a 60-page paper to be granted an unaccredited “doctorate.”

The PhD poorly-understood animal, so perhaps a basic description of general PhD program requirements will allow those less familiar to appreciate why this is a laugh-out-loud kind of situation.

To understand the PhD one needs to appreciate that the university is basically an 800-year-old medieval guild system. The doctorate is the final test, which turns the apprentice into the master. In accredited (read real) North American universities, we follow a fairly standard format for doctoral education, none of which is reflected in the program described by the Newburgh Theological Seminary & College of the Bible.

In most accredited universities, first year PhD students enroll in a four to seven year program. Beginning with a first year of coursework requiring somewhere between four and six seminar courses, these classes are taught by faculty members who themselves have PhDs. In most social science and humanities disciplines, these courses involve significant amounts of reading, engaged debate with peers, and a large research paper tying it all together.

Assuming my graduate seminar, with six assigned books, represents an average course, first year PhD students could expect to read anywhere between 24 and 36 books in their first year alone. Since the Newburgh “PhD” program has six required books total, it hardly meets the threshold for a single graduate seminar, let alone an actual year of coursework.

Newburgh’s so-called PhD program also lacks comprehensive exams. In credible North America programs, the second phase of the degree program consists of reading for a student’s “comps.” These reading lists are anywhere from 80-300 total readings, which contain the most important books in the student’s field of study. The student is then tested on these readings in both written and oral exams.

This is a vital component of most PhD programs, as it requires familiarization with a very large body of information, turning student into expert, and functions to separate the determined from the not-so-determined students.

After one’s comps are passed, students spend the next two to five years researching and writing their dissertations, a document measuring hundreds of pages (or for scientists, hundreds of hours of research) of original research that “advances human knowledge.”

While Newburgh’s program requires a 60-page paper referring to at least 20 sources, this much shorter than most dissertations. In my experience the average social science dissertation is over 200 pages, with more than a hundred individual sources consulted during the research. My dissertation, for example, is 394 pages long (too long) and my bibliography numbers 10 page. To be frank, I know of no credible PhD program that would set the dissertation bar as low as Newburgh’s.

While I have no way of knowing if Albert Trask went above and beyond the paltry requirements of this bible college program, what I can say for certain is that this college can’t confer accredited PhDs for a reason. Six book summaries don’t come close to demonstrating one’s mastery of a concept, nor would a graduate-level course be approved without significant intellectual analysis of these sources. Nor would any accredited university take a $175 bribe-like payment for the student to skip out on a class or reading.

If Trask enrolled in Newburgh Bible College in good faith to obtain a credible PhD, he was scammed. He paid a lot of money – almost $3,000 – for a degree that is literally not worth the paper it is printed on.

And he can’t even call himself “Dr.” While I don’t think there is anything illegal about adopting the title (unless it involves practising medicine). There are longstanding and commonly accepted norms for its usage. Basically to use the title “Dr.” you need a specific professional or research degree – like a PhD or an MD.

Of course, only accredited programs can issue recognized degrees, so unaccredited degrees don’t pass on the privilege of the title. Even honourary degree recipients are restricted in their use of the prefix “Dr.,” usable only on the honourary-degree granting university’s campus.

Universities are accredited for a reason, to prevent this precise scenario from occurring, and if we were to accept all PhDs as valid, we wouldn’t need accreditation to begin with. When individuals create dubious institutions that allow their “students” to believe that is possible to side-step a massive amount of work and still get the degree, it undermines the whole university system.

These questionable degree programs are increasingly common, more so at the master’s level than the PhD. If you are interested in pursuing a graduate or professional degree, do the research beforehand, make sure it’s provincially accredited and that the university is well-regarded. Protect yourself, and if you want to go to grad school, be prepared to do the work.

Adam Gaudry is an assistant professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Native Studies.

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