Five misconceptions of doctoral degrees

WHILE the main purpose of embarking on a doctoral degree should be about the pursuit and contribution of new knowledge, there are very practical reasons to earn the qualification.

Some sees the degree as an entry ticket into academia, while others expect academic promotions. There are also individuals who are hesitant to take this next step, for fear that they do not have the financial means to pay for their studies.

While there are some truths to the above thinking, there exists a number of misconceptions on the process of earning a doctoral degree, and what the qualification could eventually lead to.

The first misconception is that a doctoral degree is expensive.

There is no denying that some universities offer their doctoral programmes at extremely high prices. Yet, such practices are not across the board.

For one, research-based PhD programmes by local public universities (and some private universities) are generally affordable, with some universities charging lower than RM15,000 for a four-year study period.

Some universities waive tuition fees and provide attractive stipends to doctoral students. For instance, public universities in Hong Kong offer a monthly stipend of close to RM10,000 for each full-time PhD student. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. These doctoral students are required to take on tutoring duties and assists professors in their research projects.

Beyond US, UK or Australia, students could also consider universities in Germany, Italy and Malta as well as Eastern Europe. Many European universities offer three-year PhD programmes on campus or distance learning at less than RM30,000.

The second misconception is that our doctoral supervisors will always tell us what to do.

Doctoral supervisors come in all shapes and sizes. Some supervisors are the nurturing type, while others expect their students to take initiative in their research.

A doctoral research is an independent process, where one synthesises and evaluates existing knowledge with new data generated in order to make original academic contributions. The role of a supervisor is one that provides advice or feedback, and at times plays the devil’s advocate.

While supervisors always want the best for their advisees, they are not obliged to ensure that the students clear and complete their doctoral studies. In fact, there has been cases where supervisors have counselled students to withdraw from their studies or exit with a lower qualification.

No one should expect their supervisors to tell them what to do.

The third misconception is that professional doctorates are less useful than PhDs in academia.

I have mentioned repeatedly that doctoral degrees are about contributing new knowledge. A professional doctorate (such as DBA or DEd) focuses on advancing professional practices and/or finding solutions to complex practical issues through research. A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is about evaluating concepts/theories and/or generating new theories through research.

Due to the differences between these two types of doctoral degrees, some would perceive professional doctorates as less suitable for academia compared to PhDs. While I do not deny that some research universities do have similar inclinations, the type of doctoral degree is all but one criterion amongst many others in the hiring process.

Personally, I have known of many academics with professional doctorates who have excelled in academia, especially in areas where practice-based research is preferred.

The fourth misconception is that a doctoral degree leads to professorial roles.

Some universities, such as those in Singapore and Hong Kong, offer two parallel tracks for their faculty members, namely teaching track and research track.

Many fresh doctorates begin as lecturers in a teaching track. Upon building up a good research portfolio in a few years, these lecturers would eventually seek positions in the research track. Yet, many lecturers do stay on the teaching track by choice.

On the other hand, doctoral degree holders with good research potential could directly be offered the position of assistant professors, the most junior professorial role on the research track. On fulfilling their research, teaching, and service performance indicators, assistant professors would be tenured and upgraded to associate professors.

The path to professorial roles is even more complicated in Malaysia. While there is only one main academic track in most Malaysian universities, lecturers have to first prove that they are good teachers in order to be upgraded to senior lecturers. Thereafter, they have to justify their research outputs in order to eventually become associate professors.

Not all doctoral holders would eventually become professors in academia.

The fifth misconception is that a doctoral degree leads to senior management roles.

Someone I know has some years of working experience in junior-level roles in a hotel, and he has recently completed a PhD degree in hotel management. He’s now actively seeking senior management roles in five-star hotels.

This is not a standalone anecdote. From time to time, I have come across doctoral graduates announcing their plans to take up senior management roles in the field relevant to their studies even though they do not have substantial work experience.

The rise to senior management positions are often dependent on one’s reputation and recognition, leadership qualities, as well as actual prior experience.

Perhaps, the only exception is the higher education industry, where doctoral holders are preferred for senior academic management roles. Even so, the criteria for such appointments are still similar to those in other industries.

Dr Benny Lim is currently a professor and the director of the Master programme in communication and media studies, Università Telematica Pegaso (Italy), as well as a visiting scholar of cultural studies with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the universities he is associated with.