Easy PhDs

So I’m talking on the phone to my sister and she says at some point:

“I was interviewing this guy today and he has a PhD in one of those really hard disciplines.”

“What, as opposed to people who have all those easy PhDs?” I ask. “Like maybe in literature?”

My own sister, folks. I changed her nappies and dropped her on the floor twice when she was an infant. I taught her to read and to write. And I still can’t get over her biting the nose off my favorite toy piglet when she was six months and I was six years old.

Even for my sister “the really hard PhDs” are not the ones in Humanities. Because anybody can read about books and then blab about what they’ve read, right?

You have no idea how many times I heard from people in sciences, “Well, what you do is not real research, right? I mean, you can just argue anything you like. It isn’t like anybody can prove you wrong.”

Well, it’s time for me to go engage in some of that easy-peasy research of mine, folks.

26 thoughts on “Easy PhDs”

  1. Out of context this makes me sound ignorant! What I meant to say is that the candidate had a PhD but I did not understand what it was in. Because I was rushing to tell the story, I said “I don’t know what it was in – something complicated”. I did not mean a “complicated” vs “uncomplicated” PhD! I meant that his specialization was complicated for me to remember.

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  2. The PhD “field” is very diverse and varies. Having said that though, I do believe there are easy PhDs and there are PhDs that are much harder to get. Although this also depends on the program and the college.

    I know I’m gonna get flamed for this, but generally, it is thought that a PhD in a hard discipline is a PhD where most people just don’t have the brains for it. For instance, I would say not many people out there don’t have the smarts for a PhD in Theoretical Physics or Electrical Engineering. Where as I would say just about anyone can get a PhD in say History or Psychology.

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    1. “Where as I would say just about anyone can get a PhD in say History or Psychology.”

      – Want to bet that you can’t do it? πŸ™‚ Put your money where your mouth is, come on. πŸ™‚

      In my grad school, at least, the drop out rate for my department (Spanish Literature) was significantly higher than for the sciences department.

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      1. Sure Clarissa, I’ll spend 5 years of my life just to prove a point to you πŸ™‚

        I can’t say about anyone else, but for me the liberal sciences were very easy. I got As in all of them. I had to work much harder for good grades in hard sciences and engineering courses. Other classmates also agree on this point.

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        1. You can’t deny, though, that many students find sciences very easy and are hopelessly bogged down in the Humanities, right? I meet such students all the time. They are brilliant, say, in physics, but can’t analyze a simplest work of fiction or write a single good sentence. Different people have different capabilities.

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  3. ed :
    The PhD β€œfield” is very diverse and varies. Having said that though, I do believe there are easy PhDs and there are PhDs that are much harder to get. Although this also depends on the program and the college.
    I know I’m gonna get flamed for this, but generally, it is thought that a PhD in a hard discipline is a PhD where most people just don’t have the brains for it. For instance, I would say not many people out there don’t have the smarts for a PhD in Theoretical Physics or Electrical Engineering. Where as I would say just about anyone can get a PhD in say History or Psychology.

    Urg, unintended double negative there. This is why I did not pursue a degree that requires a lot of writing. I hate writing essays and such.

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  4. bloggerclarissa :
    You can’t deny, though, that many students find sciences very easy and are hopelessly bogged down in the Humanities, right? I meet such students all the time. They are brilliant, say, in physics, but can’t analyze a simplest work of fiction or write a single good sentence. Different people have different capabilities.

    Can’t say I have met anyone like that. Generally if you have good reasoning skills (which is a must in the sciences and engineering) and can memorize a few things you can do humanities. I really don’t know if your average humanities student could do well pursuing an engineering or science degree.

    I do believe there is a bias that places more importance on sciences and engineering than humanities. Maybe this is the root of many misconceptions.

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    1. “Generally if you have good reasoning skills (which is a must in the sciences and engineering) and can memorize a few things you can do humanities.”

      – Funny. πŸ™‚ Especially seeing as I can’t memorize worth a damn. πŸ™‚

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      1. Well, I took AP Spanish Lit in high school and it required little memorization; it was mainly analysis. However, I also took AP European History and I think a great part of the grade was being able to memorize stuff.

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  5. I’ve heard of “hard” sciences versus “soft” sciences, but I’ve never heard the terms applied to PhD’s. And I’ve never thought of the difficulty of getting a degree in humanities versus science. I simply know that the Humanities majors at my school have a tendency to warn freshmen away from the sciences–particularly physics, which is known for being the toughest major to complete with decent grades.

    Then again, physics majors where I go to school may just be particularly insane. As for what science people have told you, maybe it’s because they don’t know anything about research in the Humanities. That said, of what does research entail in the Humanities?

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    1. There is such a huge variety of disciplines in the Humanities, that one can’t generalize. For some people, research involves doing fieldwork, extensive travel, living in precarious circumstances with the subjects of research. For some people, it’s all about gaining access to the archives. Some need extremely sophisticated technology and lab work. Some, like myself, need a book, the access to the Internet, and a text editor.

      I chair a committee that analyzes grant applications in the Humanities, and the variety is incredible. When I read those grant proposals, I know for a fact that I could not even begin to master what my colleagues in linguistics, anthropology, etc. are doing. I have a hard time understanding even the proposals in Eastern European Studies.

      People who think that what we do can be done by anybody have simply never tried approaching our disciplines. It has taken me 30 years of reading for hours every single day to amass my current scholarly base. And if I don’t continue doing this on a daily basis, the scholarly base will slip away.

      A colleague of mine (German Studies) interrupted her research for a few years to be an administrator. Going back to her research now is something she finds to be incredibly hard. The discipline has moved forward so much that catching up is even hard to contemplate.

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      1. I never knew that, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of other people didn’t know that, either. Maybe when a science person tells you that your research isn’t real research, you could tell them what you told me. Chances are quite a few people think of the Humanities, not of linguistics, history (and the many branches of that), anthropology, archeology, political science (again, the many branches), and all the rest out there. They also might not realize the work that goes into that kind of research, or even what kind of research is out there. I also bet they could say something along the lines of “Shakespeare wasn’t one person, but many” without realizing that someone had to do research to come to that conclusion.

        I’m interested in a lot of things, but I’m most interested in physics. That’s my choice, and I have no right to put down a Humanities major (in any area of study) just because they picked something different. Certain Humanities majors need to own up to the real reasons they don’t like the sciences (not you, or anyone in this discussion–I’ve just noticed that the divide between the two seems to go in both directions). I never realized the diversity in science research until this semester, just as I had never realized what exactly goes into research in just about any branch of the humanities (though I was aware of a few). Blaming science majors for poor grades only results in contempt by those science majors (again, I haven’t heard it here, but I have heard it in school). I’d much rather that people admit they aren’t interested in a subject or that they just find it difficult or that they don’t put enough time into the work rather than blame other people who major in a specific subject for their own failures or difficulties.

        It’s seems so simple. I have respect for people who drop out of a subject because it isn’t their thing or they have trouble with it. I don’t have respect for people who blame their own troubles on other people. I also wonder if the high drop-out rates in your grad school program were due to the fact that people suddenly realized that it required more work than they had previously thought. Science programs just seem to experience more of that early on, and it can give people the feeling that sciences are harder to major in than other subjects, when in fact they’re equally challenging in their own rights.

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  6. That’s interesting insight. I really have no clue what a researcher in Spanish Studies actually researches about. I always had the notion of someone just sitting reading lots of books in Spanish and writing about it.

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  7. bloggerclarissa :
    You can’t deny, though, that many students find sciences very easy and are hopelessly bogged down in the Humanities, right? I meet such students all the time. They are brilliant, say, in physics, but can’t analyze a simplest work of fiction or write a single good sentence. Different people have different capabilities.

    Reminds me of my girlfriend’s story of when she was getting her honours thesis in her undergraduate degree (Theoretical physics) She got a lot of praise from the reviewers, one of them calling it “the most elegant thesis [he’d] ever read.” She was pleased, but discovered that many in her field wrote very jumbled, sloppy theses which had good science but conveyed the ideas very poorly. She had two undergrad degrees, one in history, and the physics one, and with that story, nobody can deny that learning to write like a humanities student helped her considerably. πŸ™‚

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    1. Female Science Prof is publishing a hilarious series of posts that contain cover letters scientists who apply for a position at her lab send her. I’m sure those are all brilliant people but they can’t write a simple paragraph to accompany their own CV without sounding like dolts. It’s a skill, and it isn;t one that is easy to acquire.

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  8. I have a huge amount of knowledge about Continental Philosophy. Absolutely huge. I’m not always keen to communicate it as the structure of these ideas are not linear or rational. Nietzsche, for instance, wrote in an aphoristic style and suggested that he could only be understood by those with “long legs”, who could step from one peak of a mountain to another. I’ve managed to achieve this feat of fully understanding Nietzsche, after many years. I still can’t convey what I’ve understood, at least not effectively. I’m not sure it’s even advisable to try. People ought to read Nietzsche directly and then read Bataille’s take on him. It’s all about letting go of safety and servility — actions which can feel to some people like “facing death”.

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  9. Americans basic science illiteracy leads them to believe that the field is harder than it is. Their exposure to the dumbed down humanities offered in high schools leads them to conclude that they are easier than they are in fact.

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  10. I studied mathematics because it was the easiest thing taught. I still don’t really believe it when people say that they cannot do it. It is far easier than anything in the humanities. I think they are just unwilling to work even a little.

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