A Brief History of the PhD

Congratulations to the Class of 2014! As students across the country graduate, let’s take a quick look at the degree that most of us at Neuwrite West either already have or wish to have: the PhD.

Abbreviated from the Latin philosophiae doctor, meaning “doctor of philosophy,” the PhD is the highest degree that a student can attain in most fields, with the notable exceptions of law and medicine that have their own doctorates. The degree originated in the 19th century when the word “philosophy” had the much broader meaning of “love of wisdom,” and so it exists in neurobiology, physics, French literature, and many other academic disciplines, as well as in what we now call philosophy.

Whereas the doctorate degrees in medicine and law, known as the MD and the JD, respectively, require students to study and pass exams on what is already known in their fields, the PhD requires a substantial original contribution of new knowledge through research. No one will ask a medical student or a law student to make a discovery in order to get her degree. But a PhD student in neurobiology, in addition to acquiring a broad knowledge base in the subject, is asked to discover some new fact about the brain before he can get his diploma.

In many disciplines of the humanities, for instance, art history, and in the theoretical branches of the natural sciences, like theoretical physics, the research discovery requirement of a PhD may result in a new interpretation or a new explanation of already existing facts. In the best circumstances, the PhD students who interpret existing facts inspire the PhD students who specialize in gathering new facts by pointing out the gaps in knowledge and the facts that need to be gathered to fill them. Sometimes, this research cross-pollination leads to big discoveries about how nature works (for an example of such productive cross-pollination between neurobiology and cell biology, see my previous post). Too often, those that gather facts and those that interpret them ignore, misunderstand, or even disdain each other, which makes for many nerdy jokes. That attitude is just too bad because PhD students of all kinds share a lot in common, including the quest for new knowledge and the frustrating unpredictability of when they will graduate, since research discoveries, unlike classes, don’t happen on a schedule. The reason that research is the defining requirement for a PhD has a lot to do with how the modern research university came to be.

Though universities have existed in Europe since the 11th century, the degrees that medieval universities awarded had more in common with the MD and the JD than with the PhD, in that they required mastery of already existing knowledge. Throughout the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, most European scholars were affiliated with universities, but research was something they did in their spare time, while they supported themselves by teaching the children of the nobility. For the 17th-century scientific luminary Sir Isaac Newton, who became a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge just one year after obtaining his Master of Arts, his refusal to become a priest in the Church of England was a much bigger factor in his university career than the quality of his research, which he conducted at home.

European colonialism spread the idea of university around the world, with two universities in North America, King’s College (now Columbia University) and the University of Pennsylvania, awarding doctorates of medicine by the late 1760s. As in Europe, the North American universities focused on teaching the youth of the wealthy, influential families, and not on research.

But then in 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt, a well-connected Prussian diplomat who was friends with many of the leading scholars of his day and brother of the then-famous explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, founded the first university tasked with combining teaching and research. Since in his spare time Wilhelm von Humboldt was a linguistic researcher who became the world expert on the Basque language and badgered his globe-trotting brother for details of South American languages, it’s tempting to speculate that he founded the university to provide a better home for his beloved research, especially since he bitterly quarreled with the Prussian aristocracy in order to make his university financially independent. Initially named the University of Berlin and now called Humboldt University, this first modern research university began awarding a new kind of degree, the PhD, which required original research. This model quickly spread to other universities, notably Yale University that awarded the first PhD in the United States in 1861.

As access to higher education expanded after the Second World War, universities began to produce more and more PhDs, and to require more and more of their professors to have the degree. However, the growth in the number of PhD holders has far outpaced the number of university professorships, and in 2008 less than half of PhD holders in the life sciences who got their degree before 2002 were employed in university research. The trend is similar in other fields. By necessity and by choice, most PhD graduates now go on to a variety of careers outside universities.

Because of the persistent overproduction of PhDs relative to professorships, there have been numerous calls for a new revolution in higher education. Nature published an article titled "Is a PhD Worth Having?" back in 1968 and has continued to revisit the topic with provocative article titles like "Fix the PhD" and "Reform the PhD System or Close It Down," both in 2011. The topic has even made it into mainstream media with both The Atlantic and the Economist highlighting the university job market imbalance. Nonetheless, my own still-incomplete PhD has been one of the most intellectually stimulating, enriching, and fun experiences of my life. On this graduation weekend, it is neat to realize that the newest generation of PhD graduates is part of a more than 200-year-old tradition of research training.