Saturday, March 7, 2009

A funded PhD in three years!?

First the good news: in Tilburg (southern Netherlands) they are developing and investing in a philosophy of science program focused on formal approaches. Besides appointing Stephan Hartmann out of LSE, they also appear to have attracted Eric Pacuit, who won a financially attractive research grant from the Dutch Science foundation (NWO). While I have reservations about Hartmann's hegemonic ambitions with his Bayesian program, we can only applaud this development. Tilburg appears to have entered a virtuous cycle, where funding begets talent which begets international development which begets funding. Together with groups in Amsterdam (the logicians) and Groningen (Van Hees, Romeyn), and the nearby centers in Leuven (Igor Douven) and Gent (Batens, Meheus), formal approaches are thriving in the Low Countries. Because there is plenty of philosophy (and even some history in Nijmegen) of science talent without formal fetishishes, especially in philosophy of physics (Utrecht) and economics (Rotterdam/Amsterdam), we can speak of a thriving philosophy of science scene. This is not to mention that there are no problems: there is curious weakness in philosophy of biology and despite presence of Marc Slors in Nijmegen lack of depth in philosophy of mind.
Anyway, this posting was prompted by announcement of yet another PhD position in philosophy of science (or epistemology) in Tilburg. For more details go to:www.tilburgu niversity. nl/tilps/
PhDs are lavishly funded; in effect one becomes an eployee of the state and one is treated more like staff than a student. Because these positions are costly, they are few. So, the Government only funds projects they deem worthy (fair enough) and attainable (yuck). Because every completed PhD gets a substantial bonus (really!) the incentives are all that the system favors a lot of 'me-too' projects and there is very little risk-appetite. (There are further problems in that a) the project is often handed down from the person who wrote the grant to the student, and b) because of a restrictive policy on who can be supervisor people don't always get to work with the folks who understand the topic.) A group with a unified focus (such as they are building in Tilburg) can optimize the division of labor, and parcel out projects within a going concern. This is philosophy on the model of a successful chemistry lab. This is as the Logical empiricists envisioned it, so I kind of enjoy the fact that Neurath's vision is alive and well in the Low Countries.
Yet, here is the bad news: Tilburg is pioneering PhD positions that are supposed to be completed in three years. The financial benefits are obvious: the university still gets the substantial bonus for a completed PhD, but saves money on salary. This shortening of the project simply means dumbing down. A typical Dutch philosophy aspirant has three years of college, two years of a research master, and then goes straight into writing a dissertation (with assorted stays abroad and research seminars, especially in Summer). Given all the selective pressures, Dutch aspiring PhDs are often the very best (but late-bloomers like me have no chance in this system), but they get no time to explore and develop philosophically. No doubt Tilburg will insist it can maintain quality control (maybe by getting foreign applicants or by insisting on publication in 'A' journals controled by formal fetishists), but the damage will be felt a decade down the line: the Tilburg PhD will exemplify a worrying trend of hyper-specialization and even more me-too-ism. This is fine in chemistry (where competition is reduced because of substantial barriers to entry), but in philosophy it means plodding mediocrity.

21 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. This sounds like very good news on the whole. A very progressive venture.

    But let's get this straight:

    a. PhD students work on topics assigned by supervisors. (As Eric says, the project is handed down form the person who wrote the grant.) Do these topics need to be part of a funded research programme that the supervisor is pursuing?

    b. Except in pockets (and even there the "students" may not be exposed to it) very little philosophy of particular sciences -- e.g. biology, physics, cognitive science.

    My worry, like Eric's, would be that this system will turn out people who are not optimally equipped to find and carry out research programmes of their own. When philosophers get to occupy positions in which they are not assistants, they need an internal source of puzzlement from which they can draw out open questions for investigation. Often, in philosophy of science, this comes from curiosity about problems in the sciences. But this programme doesn't sound sufficiently curiosity-driven.

    (To be a bit self-indulgently autobiographical: I started worrying about teleology in biology soon after I left graduate school. Though I didn't publish anything about it until eight years after my PhD, all of my current research traces back to that productive worry, though my supervisors didn't work on it directly, and my current work isn't about teleology as such.)

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  3. I have known only one person who completed a PhD in philosophy in three years. He already had a masters degree, and he was an Air Force officer. The latter meant both that someone was paying all of his bills (as for the students at Tilburg) but also that he had a job teaching at the AF Academy when he was done (unlike the poor schlubs at Tilburg). Even setting aside concerns about the quality of their philosophy, what are these students going to do when they've earned their degree? There are no philosophy lab tech jobs, so what are the prospects for philosophers who have spent a few years laboring on somebody else's project?

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  4. Most of what has been written by Schliesser and Magnus deserves to be passed over in silence. For the other readers of the blog, I give some clarifications:

    1. Ph.D. in three years. The European (Dutch) 3+2+3 system differs from the American system in so far as applicants are expected to have a completed a two-year (Research) Master on top of their bachelor. This education anticipates the first year(s) of a Ph.D. in American universities. The doctoral candidates have no coursework or teaching obligations throughout the three years of funding and are supposed to focus completely on research.

    Some more or less successful biographies refute the conjecture that this model implies a loss of quality. (e.g. www.laeuferpaar.de/papers -- sorrz for the immodesty)

    2. Topic Assignment. The Ph.D. position Tilburg currently advertises requires applicants to come up with a project description of up to 5000 words. The students and are not attached to a particular grant, nor are they paid by grant money, and they are supposed to pursue their own line of research.

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  5. On point 2: I am delighted to hear that the current position allows applicants to create their own projects.
    On point 1: I love Jan's lack of modesty. But his (impressive) CV confirms all aspects of one of my claims (e.g., "No doubt Tilburg will insist it can maintain quality control (maybe by getting foreign applicants or by insisting on publication in 'A' journals controled by formal fetishists)." It should, thus, increase credibility of the comments Jan wishes to pass over silence?
    But he is wrong about two things: first, the two year Dutch research master is not comparable in quality to the course-work done by North American PhDs in the first few years of graduate school. It has less breadth and one has far fewer peers (who are often most important teachers), not to mention nowhere near the depth of quality of faculty. Second, some (moderate amount of) teaching during one's dissertation is actually useful to one's philosophical development.
    By the way, Dutch philosophy is benefitting from incredible brain drain out of Germany. So, Jan, welcome!

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  6. On Jan Sprenger's point 1, many American PhD students also don't start their PhD program until they've first completed a 2 year terminal MA. Their 2-3 years of PhD coursework is on top of that. In many American PhD programs, the majority of students have, prior to entering, received such an MA.

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  7. One shouldn't forget that typically in Europe undergraduate philosophy students do three or four years of pretty much nothing but philosophy, whereas in North America it's more of a general education with a heavy emphasis on philosophy. Also, departments are constrained by the policies in force at their institution. If a 3-year PhD without course work is the norm, it is difficult to offer a US-style PhD with 2 years of general coursework before dissertation writing starts.

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  8. At the risk of being incredibly controversial, I have to say that, in my experience, many postgraduate students don't work nearly as hard as they might. And if one does work hard enough, a PhD, along with readiness to publish, is easily achievable in three years.

    I finished mine in two years, working about sixty hours a week (give or take). I also had plenty of time to explore, as the embarrassingly rambling thesis testifies.

    Having said this, I agree that (a) teaching experience is important, (b) exposure to different areas of philosophy is important, and (c) that after just three years, one may still be on a learning curve where one's best work is quite a way to come.

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  9. P.S. I should add that I'm not trying to suggest that I'm 'special' because I finished in two years.

    Far from it. I just worked hard. Besides, I know of other philosophers (e.g. who studied at Oxford) who submitted in one year. And they went on to have fantastically successful academic careers...

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  10. Darrell, of course one can finish in three years (or less). But your case also proves my point; you had several Masters degrees (from intellectually rich environments) under your belt before you started PhD.

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  11. Richard, the current norm in the Netherlands is four years, but Tilburg is trying to create a new norm (and trying to make more money through their PhD positions).

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  12. That's true, Eric. But remember that I didn't have any background in philosophy!

    In any event, my point wasn't really about me. (I was using myself as an example because the only reason I finished early was that I worked hard. And I say that without any false modesty.)

    So I was simply suggesting that with hard work, which is often the exception rather than the rule, three years is ample. And no doubt students may themselves be eager to earn a decent wage (which is, admittedly, less of a pressing concern when the PhDs are as well-funded as they are in the Netherlands)!

    Let me go even further, for the sake of argument. I'll suggest that anyone incapable of completing a PhD in three years is: (a) not yet intellectually ready to be enrolled on a PhD, or (b) suffering from self-esteem (or other confidence-related) problems, or (c) not sufficiently well-motivated to deserve a place.

    If Tilburg selects the right candidates, I don't see any real problem. And if, as you say, the PhDs are so incredibly competitive, they should be able to get the cream of the crop!

    Of course, there is the question of 'aftercare'... but that's another matter entirely...

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  13. I like to add something to this discussion. I am a research master student in philosophy at Tilburg University (I am now in my first year). I am also a student-member of the Programme Committee of this very same research master. What I want to stress is that it is normal that research master students are offered a PhD-track of three years (this because they are already working on their project from the first research master year on). Though universities in the Netherlands haven't formalised this yet, I was informed (in my position as a student member of the Programme Committee) that they are planning to do this. So Tilburg in particular isn't trying to create a new norm. (This doesn't mean I like this; I prefer to follow a PhD-track of four years instead of three, but that's a different point.

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  14. Dear Joost,
    Tilburg is happening place, so I am confident you are getting a terrific education. But let's be clear: Tilburg is creating a norm; once it is declared a 'success' I am sure other places in Netherlands will copy it (given the financial incentives in place it will be too attractive not to follow your lead). But right now there is no national policy in this direction. (I just filled out several research grants with four year time-lines for PhDs!)
    But in the point you "stress" ("it is normal that research master students are offered a PhD-track of three years (this because they are already working on their project from the first research master year on") you kind of confirm a suspicion I have. At Tilburg the research master is also being transformed into a vehicle of hyper-specialization. After three years of undergraduate, you have five years to become a specialist, although I don't see how you can also get knowledge of a lot of associated disciplines (especially important if you want to be a philosopher of science). The whole situation is very ironic, because if you are right (that other universities in Netherlands are planning for this) then the 'knowledge economy' will be built on shortening post-graduate education while increasing focus.
    Anyway, I am glad to learn this blog is read and discussed in Tilburg. Perhaps, folks in charge there will realize there is a reputational cost to their trend-setting activities.

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  15. To Jan Sprenger: This is not a venue in which you can say that comments made in good faith by reasonable fellow philosophers "deserve to be passed over in silence".

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  16. As far as I know, the three-year PhD track has been a reality in the Netherlands prior to Tilburg's 'innovation'. I know for a fact that at least two of my colleagues in Amsterdam have (had) PhD positions funded for only three years. And as pointed out before, this is not a Dutch thing, it is really an European thing (e.g., I think it is the norm in the UK at the moment). I agree with Eric's impression that this may be detrimental to the general maturity of philosophers upon obtaining their degree (generally speaking, what good is it to have a PhD degree when you are only 25?). But my impression is that it is precisely for this reason that research post-doc positions are popping up; in a sense it is simply a continuation of one's PhD formative period. If a post-doc research period becomes the norm, then in the end it may boil down to more or less the same in terms of 'end-result', but just organized differently. Nevertheless, having enjoyed a four-year fully paid PhD position in Leiden, and having finished on time, I must say I feel a bit sorry for those who now only have three years: those four years were all every bit as essential for my philosophical development.

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  17. Dear Catarina,

    I've no doubt that most (if not all) PhD students will continue to develop significantly after three years, as you did, but I don't see that this is an argument for giving them funding for longer than that period.

    What's needed, in addition, is an argument that their development will be impaired if they are not funded for four years. And I don't think that's so easy to come by. We all continue to develop, of course, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

    Incidentally, I'd say that one of my most important developmental periods was when I was teaching for around fifteen hours (contact time) a week. It gave me the chance to explore all sorts of material that I otherwise probably would not have.

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  18. Hi Darrell,

    I didn't intend to present my personal experience as an argument in favor of long-term funding for PhD students. In fact, I guess it's pretty obvious that personal experiences will be at best illustrative (and this holds also for previous comments on this thread). Decisive arguments would be of a more sociological, statistical kind, something like a correlation between years of funding as a PhD student and subsequent quality of work (and *that* would certainly be really hard to judge objectively!).

    I completely agree that the line needs to be drawn somewhere, and what can be observed now is that the line is being drawn earlier than before. A PhD is no longer what it used to be! Think about the French tradition, when people had to write *two* separate theses in order to obtain their degrees (say, one on Kant and one on Hegel -- I'm not sure it is still like this in France). On the other hand, people often started their professional careers while still working on their PhDs. So this is why in a way it is not that different, as I said before, it's just organized a little differently. And in any case, it's hard to stop the flow of things, and it looks like the trend is really towards shorter and shorter (and perhaps shallower and shallower...) PhD tracks.

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  19. Hello again,

    I think there's a tendency to overrate the importance of PhDs, to be honest. And indeed I think that we could do perfectly well without them (as we did not so long ago).

    (This isn't to say that people shouldn't have the opportunity to train as philosophers, of course. But we might question the wisdom of devoting much of that time to one long piece of work on a relatively narrow topic. Or, God forbid, two such works!)

    So I don't view PhDs as much more than professional qualifications. Possessing one indicates a basic level of research competence, and not much more. And I don't think that having a PhD should be necessary in order to have an academic career (as it appears to be in some institutions).

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  20. Darrell, I agree that teaching undergraduates is one of the best on-the-job-training-methods for philosophers; crucially it nearly always means broadening one's focus away from specialist research. But this is, thus, an argument to include it in the PhD process. But this takes away research time, which become a scarce commodity in a three year PhD.
    By the way, yes post-docs are propping up. But in the Dutch system, there are many incentives to have far fewer post-doc (and 'tenure-track') positions than PhD positions.
    Catarina, I did not realize you were such a fatalist!

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