Practitioner Focused Doctorates?

The other day, a post from the University of Phoenix showed up in my news feed, extolling their doctoral programs.  I couldn’t resist firing off a quick comment:

post on University of Phoenix's Facebook Page

I stand by the claim.  The primary factor that affects the perceived quality of a doctoral program is the number of graduates who get assistant professor jobs at top schools.

UOP’s community manager responded to my comment by throwing out a red herring about how the programs are “practitioner focused”, which has nothing to do with what I said. Even if you are working in the private sector, the reputation of the school matters, and the reputation is driven by tenure-track placements.  I was interested, though, to find out that the program has been going on since 2002.  Then again, it isn’t surprising I had never heard of it, since no UOP graduates were teaching at the university where I went to graduate school, or seem to be publishing in any of the journals I read.

University of Phoenix community manager's reply to my comment

Later one of their current doctoral candidates tried to turn the discussion around and make it about me.  Thank you, Jennifer, but I already have a career.  Some of us are interested in the system itself, not just punching our own tickets.

one of University of Phoenix's doctoral candidate's reply to my comment
So, as amusing as it is to troll the University of Phoenix on social media, why am I bringing this up on my blog?  Well, as I thought about it over the weekend, I realized the existence of such a thing as an online “practitioner focused” doctoral degree is symptomatic of a larger educational issue.

First, let’s consider why any practitioner, which I take to mean someone who is not interested in teaching or public sector research, would need a doctoral degree.  I can only think of two reasons:  either they think it will prepare them for some sort of private sector research, or it is purely for prestige–one more certificate on the “I love me” wall of the office.

The first possibility is dubious.  In my own field, it is hard to think of any sort of research one could do with a DBA that they couldn’t do with an MBA.  Really, once you have a handle on statistics, theory of knowledge, and the basic experimental and data gathering methods then the rest is just reviewing the literature and keeping current in your own specialty.  I did all of the above in business school.  Then again, I went to the University of California, not the University of Phoenix.

The second possibility seems more likely, but also disturbing and a bit odious.  If people are getting doctoral degrees purely to get a pay bump or impress consulting clients, and not because of a calling to academia or because they really want to create knowledge, then the product itself, the degree, becomes much harder to differentiate.  The market for doctoral degrees moves away from monopolistic competition towards a purely competitive situation; one doctorate is as good as another, so schools compete on price.  They maximize their profit by pricing a doctorate so that their marginal revenue is equal to their marginal cost, so they have every incentive to push down the marginal cost, so as to push down the price and sell more degrees.  The actual academic content provides very little of the value proposition, and is neglected.  The degree is cheapened.  In other words, the same thing happens to the DBA that is happening to the MBA.

The DBA becomes the new MBA.  The MBA (or some other master’s degree) is already the new BA.  Meanwhile, President Obama is pushing for free community college for most students, which will effectively make the AA the new high school diploma.  The entire educational process becomes stretched out, and for what?  I’m convinced that students don’t learn any more by the time they graduate than they did a generation ago.

The problems in our educational system exist at every level, from kindergarten to postdoc, and I certainly don’t know how to fix them.  But I do believe that the only reason to get a doctoral degree that makes sense is because you want to be an academic, and only if the degree itself still means something.

With apologies and all due respect, University of Phoenix, please do not expect to see an application packet from me any time soon.

This post was published simultaneously on LinkedIn.

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