A word on credentialism and the PhD

Kevin Kilroy
10 min readDec 17, 2020
Ross Geller smarmily holding up an egg
NBC

I don’t have anything to add to the conversation in response to that ridiculous WSJ article and Dr Biden. I completely understand why people, especially women and POC, are persistently incensed by these attacks on doctoral degrees, particularly as they rarely seem to come for white men.¹ At the same time, none of the discourse is convincing anyone — a WSJ opinion writer is never going to value a doctorate in education, especially not one earned through concern with open-access colleges, and the people who agreed with the opinion aren’t doing so because of any logical position. This same old attack is rehashed time and time again, and no matter how many times people point out that the broader, non-medial doctoral degree precedes the MD by literal centuries, people still believe that only MDs should be doctors because it’s a belief, not a thought-out position based on the history of doctoral degrees. The argument isn’t really that only MDs should be called doctors; it’s that the MD, which is a professional degree, is what’s worthy of the esteem we equate with the title “Doctor”, whereas the expertise conferred in other knowledge fields is not real expertise.²

The problem is with the connotation of the credential, in other words, not the term, and as always, in the backlash to the backlash, I’m seeing an interesting example of horseshoe theory playing out as leftists respond to right-wingers’ claims that Dr Biden isn’t a real doctor by questioning why they should shed tears over the fact that she isn’t being addressed as “Doctor”.³ Part of that response is to remind us that we shouldn’t care about this debate because credentialism is the issue. And, I agree — but, the word I’d like to add regarding credentialism is to say that there are two different kinds of credentials being discussed here, and to respond to a debate about how much respect a PhD should be afforded by saying credentialism is the problem is, I think, to conflate the issues.

Part of the problem is that we on the left have a similar disdain for the elites. That isn’t the problem, of course; elitism sucks. However, it’s not really accurate in 2020 to count PhD holders or students⁴ as being among the elites other than in a vague sense of “education = elite”. That stereotype might have been somewhat accurate at one point, maybe even in recent history, but in an era of rampant adjunctification, in which education is no longer a public good but a private commodity, even at public schools, it strikes me as extremely strange to believe that PhD holders are people who only earned their credentials in order to look down on the uneducated masses. When we think of that kind of PhD holder, we’re usually thinking of a tenured or tenure-track professor earning good money to teach a couple classes each term and spend the rest of their time researching⁵ (which is fine if it’s in a lab; if it’s in a library, though…). However, three-quarters of American college faculty are non-tenure track, and half aren’t even full-time. If you went to college in the last twenty years, chances are good that your instructors were part-time lecturers working at several colleges, possibly even living on public assistance.

Many people will decry the PhD, and those who hold them, by telling them that it doesn’t mean anything. The thing is, we know. There are certainly snotty, condescending PhD holders, but no one currently goes for a PhD under the impression that it’s a ticket to a cushy life and a position in the ivory tower from which we can look down on everyone else. Contemporary PhD students enter PhD programs because they enjoy their field and enjoy the work it entails; some of us continue to take on debt to do so, and most of us do so having no idea if, at the end of it, we’ll even be able to continue doing that work, or if we’ll have to trade academia for a steady paycheck.⁶

The thing is, this has always been what a PhD represents: it’s a credential conferred upon people who have decided to pursue, and become experts in, a particular area of knowledge that is (presumably) a passion for them. It represents extensive study in a specific area of inquiry. It does not represent superiority, otherworldly intelligence, or anything else — given the same desire and, most importantly, access and resources, most people would have no trouble earning a PhD, and those of us in academia are largely well aware of this.

However, the other kind of credentialism, and the kind that is a major issue, is credential creep at the undergraduate level. In the modern era, an undergraduate degree is basically required to get any kind of job, including a great many jobs that required no degree just a few decades ago. Jobs that required only a bachelor’s degree now require a master’s degree.⁷ And, all this has happened during an era of unprecedented increase in the cost of higher education, not just in tuition, but in student fees, books and other incidentals, application fees, etc.

I’m a big fan of the concept of the academy as a place where people can dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge at a variety of levels,⁸ and I also think that our world is complex enough that some fields do really require credentials even at lower levels. But — BUT — it’s impossible, I think, for any reasonable person to look at the current state of higher education and conclude anything except that credentialism at the undergraduate level currently serves no other purpose than to generate revenue. Instead of being about the pursuit of knowledge, higher education is about job training, something it was never really supposed to be about⁹ — as a result, we now have mass quantities of students who go to college because they just want job security and they know that even if college doesn’t guarantee it, on average, they will still be better off with a college degree than without one because credential creep has guaranteed that.

So what is my point, other than that I strangely enjoy adding lots of footnotes on Medium posts? My point is really two-fold:

  1. It doesn’t make sense to me to lump the conversation about whether or not PhDs should be called doctors in with a conversation about credential creep for the fundamental reason that credentialism is about forcing people to earn, and pay for, degrees they don’t really need, whereas very few people choose to earn a PhD as a result of credential creep. Credentials are not inherently bad; what’s bad is using them as a gatekeeping mechanism¹⁰ to prevent large swathes of people from being able to make a living wage.
  2. Following from that, and here I think is the key point, is that we play a dangerous game by denying the meaning of the credential of PhD in that we thereby lend credence to denials of expertise, something that has been a trademark of the right for decades.

To use English as an example, someone who earns a doctorate in literature is not superior to someone who doesn’t but just likes to read a lot, and particularly in the humanities, I would argue that since so much of our work is fundamentally deep reading, it’s quite possible to gain the same level of knowledge of the field outside of the academy, even if it might be more difficult.¹¹ I don’t think, however, that it makes sense to then draw the conclusion that the credential is meaningless. A PhD in literature demonstrates not only that the holder has a passionate interest in that field, but that they’ve chosen to spend years reading deeply in that field, and that they’ve made an original contribution to that field. This doesn’t matter in day-to-day life — at the supermarket, no one cares if you have a PhD in reading books and magazines. It does matter, though, if what you want to do with your life is continue to research those books and magazines and teach other students about them. Moreover, the fact that I wrote my dissertation on, e.g., Ulysses¹² might not mean that my opinion of it as a work of art is more important than someone else’s, but it should ideally demonstrate that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Ulysses as well as thinking about what other people have thought about Ulysses and would therefore be a good person to help newcomers to it understand and work through it. On the other hand, if I assert that expertise without that credential, that could mean anything from “I’ve spent my life researching Ulysses every moment I can” to “I read it once and am pretty sure I understand it all”. The credential is evidence — just one piece of evidence, to be sure (after all, I could be a pretty shitty Joyce scholar, while you could be a voracious, sharp reader of Joyce who chooses to do other things), but ideally, a strong piece of evidence all the same.

My point here, finally — for reals this time — is that when right-wingers deny common associations with the credential of the PhD and make claims that only a medical doctor should be called “doctor”, or that only those in the hard sciences have really earned the title “doctor”, what they’re denying is expertise in a given area — or, really, in any area. The humanities have no market value — I do not say this to detract from the humanities, which I value and love dearly, but because this has been made ever clearer with each passing year, even as people claim to value them, and as a result, it’s easy to gain support when denying expertise in the humanities; for many, it’s a short hop to social sciences like education. The thing is, it doesn’t stop there. We persistently deny expertise in hard sciences, public health, medicine, and other fields when it’s inconvenient for us to acknowledge that expertise; further, by denying expertise to people who have a credential that literally only means “I have expertise in this field”, it opens the door to deny expertise to the many people who trade only in experience (e.g., mainstream, non-academic writers). It isn’t, and has never been, about whether or not PhDs are real doctors — it has always been about delegitimizing expertise in a world where reality increasingly conflicts with the right’s worldview.

So, back to credentialism, horseshoes, etc: I simply think that it’s important in this conversation for leftists not to fall for the trap of conflating all contemporary credentials with elitism and thereby inadvertently throwing our lot in with the right’s refusal to acknowledge anything close to reality. For one, most contemporary academics are themselves precarious, not ivory-tower blowhards disconnected from reality among their posh luxury apartments. For another, though, we can push back against a society that gatekeeps by forcing people to go into massive amounts of student loan debt simply to have a chance of earning a living wage without denying that expertise exists and credentials can, and often do, have some meaning and value in — and for — society.

¹ At least, not specifically targeting a single white man, though I’m certain those same people will consider my future PhD to be ludicrous, as well. Of course, rhet/comp is typically coded as a field for women, so take what you will from all that.

² Leaving aside the whole hard sciences vs soft sciences vs humanities distinctions people claim to make since, as people like Aaron Hanlon frequently point out, those are arbitrary distinctions at best and only serve as distinctions insofar as they serve the person making them.

³ For the record, you shouldn’t shed tears, but something can be mildly frustrating and also a Thing that people talk about.

⁴ Here and elsewhere I’m counting all doctoral degrees, including e.g. Doctor of Education, etc.

⁵ FWIW, this isn’t the essay for it, but I’d argue a six-figure salary in a world with six-figure salaries is absolutely reasonable for someone who spent probably about a decade just studying for their job, then another 6–10 years earning their position.

⁶ This is frowned upon by the old guard in academia, so moreover, it’s not something most of us can get help with — many of us have no idea how to translate our academic credentials for mainstream job applications and, further, have no idea who to ask for help since asking the wrong person could jeopardize the degree we’re earning.

⁷ Maybe this will continue to creep to the doctoral level, but I suspect only once it becomes common for doctoral students to have to pay their way through.

⁸ Again, I might have much more to say about this another time, but not now. In short, though, I’m referring to an ideal, not how I think higher education currently works, and I am well enough aware of institutional histories to know that this version has always been more of an ideal than the reality.

⁹ Again, I’m familiar with the history of higher ed; here I’m making a distinction between job training and job access.

¹⁰ There is absolutely gatekeeping in PhD programs, and that needs to be stamped out, as well. But it is gatekeeping for a different purpose than exists at the undergraduate level. Again, very few people earning a PhD in 2020+ can expect a cushy tenure-track job upon conferral.

¹¹ I would argue this is true of any field; the only reason I think it’s more possible in the humanities is because we don’t need expensive lab equipment.

¹² I did not and will not be writing my dissertation on Ulysses.

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Kevin Kilroy

Poet and doctoral student in Writing Practices at SUNY Albany. Erstwhile drummer. Television addict. Traveler. Skier. Papa to two kitties.