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Is a Doctoral Degree Worthwhile for Adult Students?

It is not necessary for professionals to earn a PhD in order to be able to teach in higher education. A doctoral degree is more necessary for students looking to move into a research stream. Photo by Auremar.

What is a PhD? Why and when should a technical professional acquire it?

In the right circumstances a doctoral degree is the next educational step for a technical professional. There are many factors involved in the decision to acquire a PhD, with serious consequences. It is an appropriate degree in selected circumstances which should be acquired reservedly and with purpose.

The key element is to recognize that the PhD degree is a preparation primarily to do research. Two institutions employ graduates of PhD programs: academe and research laboratories. A researcher’s trade is to move the frontiers of knowledge forward. As such they must know how to conduct research that is recognized by their peers that is valuable and well done. Researchers must employ tried and true rules, such as the scientific method. It takes long and detailed training to learn how to be deeply aware of all the research that has been done to date in any discipline, and, based on that knowledge, perform an original piece of fundamental discovery that contributes to the field which peers will accept as valuable (peer reviewed).

Furthermore the doctoral educational process is only undertaken at universities authorized to issue doctoral degrees. There, the faculty in each discipline only accepts a few students each to mentor them in the process. It takes many years, and is not successful for every mentee, so they select carefully. Acquiring a PhD is an arduous, long-term process and not for the faint of heart. It is usually best done in youth with a view of a career as an academic or, for a small percentage to work in a research laboratory. It is not the career path for the average technical professional.

Occasionally, some mid-career technical professionals, or even an executive, decide they would like to move from business to the academic world. They want to teach in higher education. Thus they explore what it would take to obtain their PhD. Few are prepared for the difficult road ahead.

However, it is not necessary to obtain a PhD to teach in higher education. With a wealth of experience as a mid-career professional and with at least a Master’s degree, teaching full time at some four-year colleges is commonplace. The rule in academe, enforced by accrediting bodies, is that only faculty with the proper credentials should do so. At a minimum a Master’s degree in the discipline, or a Master’s degree with 18 graduate credits in the subject matter they will be teaching, is required. Long gone are the days where just experience in business will land a professional a college teaching job. In any event, with only a Master’s-level education an individual will most probably teach undergraduate courses.

Graduate level courses are taught mostly by faculty with doctoral degrees, especially in the technical disciplines. The rule of thumb is that faculty must have at least one degree higher than the degree of the program they are teaching. Teaching in executive programs is always possible and desirable for someone with industry experience, and it happens, but infrequently. The technical professional with a Master’s degree should not discount teaching in a community college, where a great deal of technical education takes place. Teaching at a community college can be a rewarding career. Today it is in high demand, given the success of the community college model of education, but prepared for compensation levels far below what technical professionals are accustomed to.

A PhD program is meant to produce researchers. PhD faculty members make their reputation on the work that their students produce while at the institution and after they depart for their own faculty posts. PhD faculty expects their students to produce well-respected research over a lifetime that makes a contribution to the field and enhances their mentor’s reputation. It is a 500-year old tradition. Reputation-building comes from a long academic career which usually starts early in life. As such, PhD mentors are necessarily reluctant to take on an older practitioner with a potentially shorter contribution span. Thus a mid-career professional may have difficulty obtaining a PhD thesis advisor to complete his studies. Be aware that once a PhD degree is obtained many industry jobs no longer become accessible to the professional as they may become overqualified. A major consequence for future continued employment: potential loss of flexibility.

Case Study

Larry is the Chief Information Officer for a medium-sized regional bank. In his twenty years in the industry he has become an information technology expert. He has a computer science degree and an MBA from a prestigious school, and holds PMP certification. Last year he was invited to teach project management at a local university, a subject he dearly loves. He did very well and was asked to come back. Now he is pondering switching careers to full time academic teaching. He wonders if he needs a PhD to be a successful teacher in higher education.

The answer is: probably not. There are many teaching opportunities open to Larry without a PhD that could be very satisfying. Since he does not intend to do research, a PhD would probably distract him for a successful transition to a teaching career in higher education. Given his MBA, and his expertise in project management, another serious alternative is to pursue a Doctor of Management degree. It would add some validity to his aspiration of assuming a full-time post in higher education.

In conclusion, a practicing professional should only seek a PhD in extreme circumstances. If the desire is to teach in higher education, it can be done successfully without a PhD by seeking the right academic posts. However, if the professional wishes to conduct research, then a PhD program is indicated, but there are many difficulties to overcome and there is a long and arduous road ahead.

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