Doctoral Cynicism

June Cotte, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business, wrote an interesting piece for the MarketingAcademics@AMA Newsletter, in which she addresses the cynicism frequently seen in doctoral students as they progress through their programs:

Many first-year students are remarkably curious, wanting to test new ideas every day to see if they are any good. They often possess open minds, a willingness to entertain both sides of an issue … and a tendency to avoid entrenched opinions. They are (mainly) not cynical.

… [T]hese students look so different from how they will be four or five years from now. Why? Often because the system, which I admittedly am a part of, teaches students the skills they need to critically evaluate research but not the skills to appreciate the inherent craziness and difficulty of publishing in top journals. I’ve seen students in seminars trash the work of some of marketing’s finest scholars. Why? Because there were trade-offs made during the research process (of course), and these students do not yet understand that this is inevitable. It’s easy to see flaws (it’s one of the first skills PhD students learn) but much harder to master the breadth of knowledge necessary to be able to locate a piece of work in the field and know whether it is innovative and important, even with its flaws (that’s one of the last skills most of us develop).

So, first-year doctoral students, as you read the papers … that you will discuss in your seminars, take a few minutes to appreciate what the authors have to say, in the context of what others have had to say about the issue, before you head to the meat of the paper looking for methodological flaws to bring up in class. Be wary of the path of the chronic “but-they-didn’t-do…” reader, for that way lies the sarcastic reviewer and the cynical professor.

In my first year as a doctoral student, I heard a similar sentiment expressed by an editor of one of the marketing journals: doctoral students tend to be poor company, because they’ve been trained to think critically but haven’t yet learned to turn this ability on and off. He said it often takes years for newly minted Ph.D.s to master this and start enjoying life again.

Have you heard the one about graduate school?

From Scholars Before Researchers: On the Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research Preparation by Boote and Beile (2005):

We have all heard the joke before—as we move through graduate school, we learn more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.

I hadn’t heard the joke before, but I think it’s hilarious. Must be the limits reference.

What is a Ph.D.?

I recently read an article by Chris Golde of the Carnegie Foundation titled Preparing Stewards of the Discipline. As a doctoral student, I find her definition of the Ph.D., as outlined in the following excerpts, inspiring:

[T]he purpose of doctoral education is to prepare stewards of the discipline. …

A Ph.D.-holder should be capable of generating new knowledge and defending knowledge claims against challenges and criticism; of conserving the most important ideas and findings that are a legacy of past and current work; and of transforming knowledge that has been generated and conserved by teaching well to a variety of audiences, including those outside formal classrooms.

Students should understand that the Ph.D., at its heart, is a research degree. It signifies that the recipient is able to ask interesting and important questions, formulate appropriate strategies for investigating these questions, conduct investigations with a high degree of competence, analyze and evaluate the results of the investigations, and communicate the results to others to advance the field. …

Stewards have a responsibility to apply their knowledge, skills, findings and insights in the service of problem solving or greater understanding. Self-identifying as a steward implies adopting a sense of purpose that is larger than oneself. One is a steward of the discipline, not simply the manager of one’s own career. By accepting responsibility for the care of the discipline, and understanding that one has been entrusted with that care by those in the field, on behalf of those in and beyond the discipline, the individual steward embraces a larger sense of purpose.”