‘The PhD Octopus’ by William James

by Alistair

A couple of days ago I read an essay written in 1903 by American psychologist and philosopher William James, entitled ‘The PhD Octopus‘.

In the essay he shares his thoughts on the usefulness of the PhD as an academic award, its (ir)relevance to teaching, and the importance placed on having one by universities.

Not that I agree with all of it necessarily, but for something written over a century ago, a lot of what James says still rings true today.

Something some of my colleagues would probably agree with him regarding the teaching benefits of having a doctorate:

Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever.

James also categorises the different types of PhD student into three types. I’d say they’re reasonably accurate. I’m not saying which one I think I fit into, but I think it’s safe to say it’s probably not the first (however I’d like to think perhaps the second!).

There are plenty of individuals so well endowed by nature that they pass with ease all the ordeals with which life confronts them. Such persons are born for professional success. Examinations have no terrors for them, and interfere in no way with their spiritual or worldly interests. There are others, not so gifted, who nevertheless rise to the challenge, get a stimulus from the difficulty, and become doctors, not without some baleful nervous wear and tear and retardation of their purely inner life, but on the whole successfully, and with advantage.

Nervous wear and tear – sounds familiar.

But there is a third class of persons who are genuinely, and in the most pathetic sense, the institution’s victims. For this type of character the academic life may become, after a certain point, a virulent poison. Men without marked originality or native force, but fond of truth and especially of books and study, ambitious of reward and recognition, poor often, and needing a degree to get a teaching position, weak in the eyes of their examiners–among these we find the veritable chair a canon of the wars of learning, the unfit in the academic struggle for existence. There are individuals of this sort for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. Your private advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally, they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.

So there you go. It’s a fairly idealistic point of view, but keep in mind it was written at a time when (I assume) the number of people pursuing PhDs was far fewer, and it may have been possible to engage in a research or academic career without one. Nowadays they’re practically mandatory for either of these. But anyway, I highly recommend reading this to anyone thinking about, currently undertaking, or who has completed, a PhD.

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