There is a real difference between earning and getting a PhD

The PhD continues to be a scarce qualification even as the Commission for University Education (CUE) insists that all academics teaching in universities must hold one.

The PhD is the highest university qualification that can be conferred by a university.

At its core, the PhD process assumes that a candidate has thought through and produced original research that expands the contours of knowledge.

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In many jurisdictions, individuals who have read and earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree use the title ‘doctor’ in social and professional settings. Now, I must emphasise that there is a difference between getting a PhD and earning one. Kenya’s season of graduations is pretty much the ideal space in exposing this distinction.

As its name suggests, ‘doctor of philosophy or ‘love of wisdom’, to earn a doctorate means to be fascinated by, and to love knowledge. An earned doctorate is a product of hours spent on persistent questioning.

The only good reason to do a PhD is a driving urge to find the answer to a complex problem and to find out how far you can push yourself in the search for knowledge.

The PhD is hard. If it wasn’t there would not be a scarcity of the qualifications around. It requires a level of determination and self-discipline that few people possess. As such, for many who get to earn a PhD, there is almost always that season of hibernation, a time where everything is momentarily set aside -- other diversions, family and other interests -- the PhD imposes a peculiar, persistent and noticeable demand on one’s intellectual capacities. As such, an earned PhD is preceded by long seasons of absences.

In contrast, there appears a trend where individuals are merely getting a PhD -- and not earning one -- without the traditional sacrifices that would ordinarily accompany the effort. ‘Getting’ a PhD is working one’s way to the pinnacle of academia by sheer grit, guile and absolute absence of intellectual sacrifice and investment of time and thought. As opposed to earning a PhD, ‘getting’ a PhD is a publicity spectacle where the occasion is designed more to make a statement than to speak to the research community.

It does not matter whether the senate and examinations committees are bludgeoned and cajoled to ensure the acme of the event coincides with significant personal triumphs like wedding anniversaries and birthdays. ‘Getting’ a PhD is an exercise in ego gratification, a pathological, misplaced genius complex, where the raw drive that fuels ambition in other social spaces is inserted into the academic field. If the ultimate reason for getting a PhD is to gratify ego, and to dramatising capability, and very often a phallic masculinity, then it is being done for the wrong reasons.

Insisting on using the title

Without a doubt, the difference between ‘getting’ and earning a PhD is best exemplified with how the title ‘Dr’ is deployed and appropriated.

In my own experience teaching in the university, those who have earned their PhD display an unassuming demeanour characterised by humility, attentiveness and a desire for continuous learning and respect for others. In contrast, fellows who ‘got’ their PHDs would take immediate offense when addressed without the title ‘Dr’, especially from undergraduate students who very often do not make the nuances.

For those who ‘got’ PhDs, the title is part of their identity and is deliberately used as a means of what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as ‘symbolic violence’ -- a sign of power, where language is weaponised to mark status, accentuate difference and beat the competition in any arena of professional and non-professional power struggles.

Here, the PhD title is ruthlessly deployed in the oddest of places such as funerals, markets, bull fighting arenas, and of course, in university campuses.

A proclivity to insisting on using the title ‘daktari’ even in the weirdest of social spaces is directly proportional to the mediocrity of the ‘gotten’ PhD. For such, doing a PhD is somehow seen as glamorous and is taken as shortcut to higher social standing and respect. Earned PhDs are rarely slighted when addressed without the title.

In many instances, some would easily prefer to be addressed by first name, understanding that a title is merely a sign, and that the intrinsic value of a PhD lies in what actually happens after the degree is earned.

We are seeing worse, where the ‘Dr’ title is now a banner, which can even be emblazoned in apparel and other odd paraphernalia.

One of my PhD students insists on getting his PhD before the 2022 elections because it will help eliminate local competition for a parliamentary seat. I now understand the political capital accrued in a campaign poster with a ‘Dr’ title.

Earning a PhD actually means starting on a journey --  a process -- that involves a desire and a demonstration of continuous fascination and production of new ideas. In contrast, getting a PhD is an event of itself, a ticking of boxes, and a mere exercise in proving ‘machismo’ to a world that should certainly care less.

Getting a PhD, unlike earning one, is not accompanied with the sacrifice of deep research, extensive reading, and lonesome days poring over books, even for years. I recall that I had to read nearly everything in my field of research, and it meant that I read everywhere.

I read in the library, I read in the bus, I read both day and night. I read over Christmas, I read all the time-for four years I scarcely rested. I have never read as deeply as I did during my PhD. And so, when I see the effortlessness with which some PhDs are fetched, with the suaveness of a Messi goal, and the thrill of a Usain Bolt dash, I can now confess that apart from our world beating athletes, we are privileged as a nation to have an emerging breed of academic Olympians.

Abuse to noble vocation

A ‘gotten’ PhD is intellectually vacuous. It is an abuse of a hallowed and a noble vocation. For a PhD to be earned, it must be driven by the intellectual curiosity to care about why something is true or false.

To earn and read a PhD is to sacrifice and commit sufficient time and resources to a process that for about four years, limits your movement, visibility and sociality.

There is no easy road to earning a PhD. My informed guess is that ‘gotten’ PhDs reflect badly on the institutions, senates and examinations boards that grant them more than on the wily individuals who ruthlessly wrestle down and get these PhDs.

- Dr Omanga is a lecturer of Media Studies at Moi University, Eldoret.

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PhDCommission for University EducationCUEDoctor of PhilosophyMedia Studies at Moi University