The Academic Doctorate


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jill Biden


Recently several journalists attacked Dr. Jill Biden, the First Lady, claiming that her Ed.D. degree, Doctor of Education, is “garbage.” One writer even wrote that only the M.D. is a legitimate doctorate. Therefore I wrote this description of the achievements necessary to attain any academic doctor’s degree.

These requirements first include a bachelor’s degree.

In order to be admitted to graduate school, the candidate needs to pass the Graduate Record Examination. That consists of a two day multiple choice exam covering all subjects from Anthropology to Zoology. The maximum achievement is theoretically 1000, although a passing grade is 800, or 80% correct answers. Since almost everyone has weaknesses and strengths in various fields, those who may know little history can make up points by showing proficiency in mathematics or biology or anything else.

Once admitted to graduate schools, the candidate may wish to attain a Master’s degree by writing a master’s thesis or by taking extra courses without a thesis. It is recommended that someone who seeks to write a doctor’s dissertation should write a master’s thesis and learn to write. A M.A. degree is not needed to reach the doctoral level.  Two years of course work are usual, although a doctoral committee of at least three professors can increase or decrease the coursework requirement.

While working on the coursework, the candidate needs to exhibit a reading knowledge of two foreign languages, which is usually French and German.

Then, on finishing coursework, the candidate must pass a preliminary examination consisting of five areas of competence. For example, a candidate for an Ed.D. may be asked to write an essay of the contribution of John Dewey to American education, and show a knowledge of early childhood education, education in a foreign country, the history of education, adult education, and statistics. If the candidate passes the five part preliminary examination, he is admitted to writing a three hundred page book called a dissertation, a French word meaning discussion. The candidate needs to ask three or more professors to be his doctoral advisors. That committee decides whether the candidate’s proposal concerning his dissertation topic is acceptable. It is advisable that the dissertation topic be at least in part original. The chair of the dissertation committee becomes the candidate’s advisor, although all members of the committee must agree to allow the dissertation to become the principal criterion for attaining the doctorate.

Because many candidates have difficulty writing a three hundred page book, at least one half of all candidates fail to write a dissertation. Because writing books and journal articles is the main means of succeeding in academia, some universities have dropped the preliminary examination in favor of having the candidate write five journal articles in professional journals. This method prevents those who cannot write from entering a profession which demands writing books and articles. Too many assistant professors lose their jobs because they cannot publish. Therefore it is better that writing ability be tested in advance of attaining the doctorate.

Once the dissertation is approved by the dissertation committee, the candidate must defend his dissertation at a meeting which may be attended by any member of the faculty. The faculty asks questions of the candidate and decides whether or not the dissertation is accepted. It is very unusual to have a dissertation rejected at the defense. Once successfully defended, the committee chair notifies the registrar and the doctor’s diploma is awarded the candidate.

Because teaching a class is seldom a part of the education of an aspiring professor, some newly minted doctors become teaching assistants at a university, thereby gaining some experience in teaching a college class.  Others begin their career as an assistant professor. As assistant professor will usually be given a one year contract, followed by a three year contract and then another three year contract, for a total of seven years’ employment. If the assistant professor is renewed in that manner, he faces a review of his performance after seven years. At that time his department will recommend or fail to recommend promotion to associate professor with a lifetime contract called “tenure” a Latin word derive from tenare, or to hold. Those who have published enough to satisfy the department and some adminstrators are lifetime associate professors, even if they never do one more thing. Those who do not achieve associate professor rank are dismissed and need to find another job, usually at a junior college that does not require scholarly publications.

Among associate professors who publish regularly, there are those who will be promoted to professor, earning more money and enjoying the security of a lifetime employment. Obviously, tenure is abused by many who simply cease doing anything except sit on some committee. Others, who cannot write and/or teach flee into administration, which is equivalent to giving up and leaving the profession entirely, since administration at colleges and universities depends on politics, not scholarship, and is most insecure since the faculty reviews the performance  of deans and other administrators every three years.

Presidents of colleges and universities are in the main politicians who know “How to influence people” but who seldom contribute anything to a college or university that a high school graduate could not do as well or better.

Shalom u’vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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