The purpose of doctoral education

There’s an interesting thread on IT Forum regarding the purpose of doctoral education. I figured as long as I was answering the “what’s the purpose” question I may as well post it here as well.

I am very much in the “steward of the discipline” camp. To me, the notion of stewardship implies a sacred trust. It is a responsibilty to take the work, sacrifice, and dedication of generations before that we have been so fortuante to freely inherit, and to treasure, preserve, and most importantly, extend this work to continue to benefit humanity and bless mankind. It is no small thing to be a steward of a field like education, biology, chemistry, literature, art, and even military science. Hundreds and thousands of people have worn out their lives to bring to light one or two small contributions to these great bodies of expertise and knowledge.

While those who know me will agree that on the surface I am very easy going and informal, deep down I have a great reverence for the opportunity to serve (and I do consider it service) in this stewardship capacity, and (as sappy as it may sound) I feel a great responsibility and desire every day to use this opportunity to benefit those around me. I just hope to make my contribution or two before my life is worn away, and I hope that someone treats my efforts with the
same respect.

Perhaps my thinking is summed up in the language of the signs seen outside so many campgrounds: Leave it better than you found it.

I guess my answer to the question “what is the purpose of doctoral education?” is that it involves the enculturation of stewards into an ever rotating collection of people who reverence their responsibility to their fields and the rest of humanity in this way. Will we get this out of all of our students? Definitely not. Will we see this attitude in 1 out of 100? Probably not. Most will just get their paper and go on to take that academic appointment or professional job it qualifies them for. But a precious few will catch the vision, and so long as one or two do, then all the rest of our work is justified.

1 thought on “The purpose of doctoral education”

  1. David,

    Part of me totally agrees with you, but your response is not quite as complete as I think it should be. You see, if what you propose was all it took to get a PhD, well, I would have had one many years ago. For me, it is the details of the “stewardship” that are important in a doctoral program. It is both the knowledge that our forbearers learned about our specific field, and the field of inquiry within our specialty which must be passed on to future generations.

    I agree that many individuals who earn those three little letters will not have your view of stewardship, and while I find that a shame, the pessimist in me (and yes, the cruel world has caused me to gain some pessimism) acknowledges that this is simply a fact of human nature. What we can, and should in my opinion, gain from a doctoral program, whether we view ourselves as stewards or not, is to have an intimate knowledge of the history of our chosen field and the ability to contribute positively to this field.

    For me, I came into our field yearning to be a steward, such as you describe, and I knew that I lacked the historical foundations necessary to be the steward I hope to become. Despite the requirements of a specific academic program, I will not be ready to be called Doctor until I feel that I have such a foundation and that I can help others to became equally literate in the foundations of our field.

    While I hope that others in my program, and my future students, will feel the need to be stewards, I do not feel that that alone is the purpose of a doctoral program. However, an exceptional doctoral program should foster such intents.

    All that said, one of my greatest joys each day, is knowing that you and the COSL team share the same passion to “benefit humanity and bless mankind”. I am so very proud to be part of a group that I believe in so deeply.

    Thank you!

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