An academic degree is a way for your colleagues to recognize your hard work to prepare yourself for a job. Successful completion of an undergraduate degree supposedly shows that you are smart enough to be able to learn how to do your job in a given field (see the previous installment on Mentoring). A master’s degree, by its name, suggests mastery in some topic. A Ph.D. is at least evidence that you can navigate academic politics (and by inference, the politics of your discipline) and that you can be persuasive in selling ideas. And where I went to school in Brussels, a Doctorate shows your ability to start a research program in any field.
I actually embarked on my Ph.D. program so I could more credibly continue in discrediting the institution, as I had for years. I had seen too many theses taken at face value because of their academic stature, though they remained out of touch with day-to-day realities. I was actually cheated in that pursuit because I found myself saddled with a wise promoter, and found myself in a great environment that challenged me while also giving me opportunities to contribute.
On its face, a degree is a recognition of worthiness by society. Alistair Cockburn once told me that his Ph.D. was largely recognition of work already done. Such recognition does open doors.
These educational opportunities, and perhaps even the associated laurels, probably have some value. I’m not sure whether higher degrees offer any more value than what one can gain on-the-job. In fact, working with my colleagues in Finland, I find that most of the value in their Ph.D. degrees (and, increasingly, in their Masters’ degrees) comes from an action research approach — trying to gain what insights one can from actual on-the-job experience in some area of focus. The good news is that the students’ learning is grounded in day-to-day problems. The bad news is that their research publications are occasionally over-constrained by the artificial limits that the messiness of the real world imposes. Some research deserves to run unfettered.
More important, after having received four academic degrees (and earned enough credits for another), and after having kept my hands dirty working for almost 40 years, I think that the main tie from my academic credentials to my work situation is in the introspection encouraged by the environment in which I took my Ph.D. Academic degrees are not career milestones. For me, my undergraduate degree broadened my opportunities to appreciate the arts (see Ars Gratia Artis) and to develop a love of programming. My Master’s degree gave me a nurturing academic environment in a setting where I had a job related to my degree: Most of the learning emanated from the job, rather than from the classroom.
This perspective has implications for hiring. Why hire Ph.Ds.? It’s not necessarily because they are worth more. In fact, academic achievement tells us little about talent. Most academic programs are rooted in test scores, and those have little correlation with career success or even job performance (Michael Wallach, Tests tell us little about Talent, American Scientist 64(1), 1976).
A career is not a collection of academic degrees. Don’t hang your career success on academic achievement. Use academic institutions for the learning opportunities they provide, partially through the classroom but even moreso through their culture, environment, opportunities for deliberate practice, and opportunities for work-study programs. Employers: hire accordingly, and make a place on your staff for bright folks still working on their sheepskin.