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What’s in a PhD?

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 5 September 2019

In mid-2017, Mary Yap Kain Ching, Malaysia's deputy minister for higher education, announced her ministry was establishing a database to verify the doctorates of educators and others. Yap said her reason was that fake doctorates had become rampant in Malaysia. Although she didn't say it, an ever-growing list of parliamentarians have called themselves PhDs.

Across Asia, and not just in Malaysia, this trend is an indication of the aura surrounding the title PhD, which has led to a massive marketplace in fake degreesghost writing of dissertations, and scams presenting honorary degreesto politiciansacademicsbusinesspeoplemanagement consultants, and professional trainers.

Aside from the fraudsters, however, evidence indicates that a PhD is becoming more important for policy analysis positions within government, major international organizations, and large NGOs. Having said that, there appears to be a mismatch between PhD holders and job opportunities, with many graduates finding it extremely difficult to find a job.


There is a growing conflict between holding a doctorate – which develops a personal framework around scientific or disciplinary investigation, analysis and understanding – and having hands-on experience. Undertaking the years of study towards a PhD is not the only way to learn skills.

Nothing is better than experience for developing personal mastery within a discipline. Academia itself has recognised issues with specialisation and in response has developed hybrids such as Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), which is an extension of an MBA; industrial PhDs that can be undertaken within the workplace; and PhD by publication.

Another alternative is life-long education: a person undertakes short certificate, diploma and graduate diploma courses that suit his or her career needs at the time. This approach can foster interdisciplinary thinking.

Many universities promote PhDs as a pathway towards better employment opportunities, higher salaries, and achieving an outstanding career. But for students who don't already have a job or the promise of a job, the reality is often very different. After graduation they are cast off and forgotten by the university concerned. Employment prospects are not as good as they were made out to be, and there is a glut of PhD holders in many areas.

In the competition for the lucrative PhD market, some universities breach ethics by institutionalizing double standards. One of the biggest growth markets for doctoral candidates exists in Southeast Asia. There, universities send their staff overseas to undertake their degrees and inter-university agreements mean that candidates from South East Asian universities are automatically passed, no matter the standard.

Supervisors have been heavily criticized for exploiting PhD students. Supervision of postgraduate students is a very important KPI for academic promotion and supervisors are able to produce many more academic papers as co-authors with their students, with little or no input from the supervisor. PhD students assist academics get research funding and they make cheap assistants, lecturers, tutors, and researchers. Supervisors have been accused of taking credit for student ideasand giving their students no acknowledgement for their contributions.


Research is full of dangers. Too often, research is repetitive, too situational, relevant to a very small cohort, or of marginal importance. Some supervisors and students don't fully understand the principles of sampling, statistical analysis, and the weaknesses of instrumentation. There are errors of reasoningin developing a general research project design. There is a general bias towards quantitative analysis, which often ignores the value of qualitative research. There are many fallacies and misconceptionsabout the way problems are defined, sampling, analysis and interpretation.

Is a PhD worth it? Yes, if undertaking a PhD is part of a journey to an academic and/or research career. This is especially the case for those already employed. If not, getting a job will require more than the PhD. It's a matter of who you know, or who you can get to know. This requires networking and perhaps being published not only in academic journals but the industry's media as well.

Whether or not you do a PhD is about weighing out the costs versus the benefits. What are you going to achieve from a PhD? What is the opportunity cost of further study versus gaining more work experience? Can you work by yourself for long periods of time, singly focused on one thing? Do you have the passion for it and will you be able to keep motivated? Do you have the financial resources?

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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This article originally appeared in the Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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