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Would a PHD Make Me a Better Teacher?

In this classic song by Sam Cooke, the singer is both honest and has his priorities straight.

I am not a historian. A historian, as I understand the term, is a person who studies primary source materials and uses this stuff to produce original historical information. This is what a person must do when writing a dissertation to earn the degree that truly signifies his or her entrance into the profession: a PHD. When I earned my Master’s Degree, I wrote only one paper that came close to producing original historical information, and it was not my Master’s Thesis. In fact, I did not write a thesis. Instead, I took a comprehensive exam. And while this was by no means easy, it mostly required the mastery of information that I learned from reading books written by real historians. It was just a tough essay test.

As a community college history professor, my job still involves organizing and attempting to explain information produced by historians. I see myself as a “middleman” trying to relay this information to students who, by and large, will never read any in-depth historical scholarship. Let’s face it. Much of what is called historical research is produced almost exclusively for other historians and for some occasional history buffs. If historical information is to have any impact beyond this small community of history lovers, then we need effective teachers who can make this stuff interesting and relevant for the general public.

While higher education is always a positive thing, the simple fact is that the skills acquired by earning a PHD are not the same as those needed for effective teaching. A teacher needs to be a combination of a performer, organizer, coach, sage, and critic. Knowledge of subject, writing ability, and the ability to find and organize information are all required, but in themselves, these skills that are developed through the earning of a PHD do not help with performance and presentation. Over many years of taking college classes, I experienced everyone from the great teacher to the terrible (and many in between.) The only thing that all of these men and women had in common, by and large, was a PHD degree.

When universities hire full-time professors, they are often more concerned with academic credentials and future research potential than they are with teaching ability. At institutions that view research as (at least) a priority equal to the education of students, this makes some sense. But at community colleges where the primary focus is supposed to be teaching, I hope that fancy academic credentials are not viewed as the most important factors. Instead, they should look for evidence that a candidate has taught lower division survey classes effectively. I suspect, however, without any actual evidence to back it up, that some schools might be dazzled by the degrees. I hope that I am wrong.

I have often thought about going back to school and getting a PHD, but practical issues have generally gotten in the way. It’s hard to earn much of an income, especially when you are teaching part-time, while splitting time with a PHD program. Seemingly, this became even more impossible when my kids were born. Watching my kids grow up has always been a higher priority for me than further higher education. And when you combine these problems with the many stories that I have heard over the years of people with PHD degrees who can’t find full-time jobs, the costs of going back to school clearly outweigh the benefits.

I also have a more philosophic reason, however, for not going back to get a PHD. Since I want to spend the rest of my career teaching at the community college level, I cannot see how a PHD degree will do very much to make me better at what I hope to keep doing. PHD programs require you to study a specific field of history in a great deal of depth. In my line of work, we teach lower division history courses that address a wide variety of topics covering long periods of time. In my one semester Early World Civilizations course, we cover every major civilization that existed over a span of 5,000 years of history. So how could a highly specialized PHD degree help me teach that class more effectively? The most productive thing for me to do is to continue improving my teaching skills. Part of this, of course, is learning my subject matter better. Fortunately, real historians are constantly at work providing plenty of information to help me.


  1. I agree with everything you've written. That's why I dropped out the Ph.D program. I wrote a Master's thesis and continued on a bit. All I would've done next is become an "expert" in a small subject that I would've written for my peers. If it did get widespread appeal, it wouldn't have been considered very scholarly. I hadn't been trained to "teach" until I switched to education courses. I know you'd read my "Decisions" post about the subject.

    The sad thing is that without the Ph.D. you get paid less on the college level. But reading relevant books in your field makes you as qualified as anyone to teach. Being a good teacher is a gift.

  2. I have to disagree with you there. In general, I think a Ph.D makes a professor much more interesting as well as more accurate. However, I will grant that there are exceptions to the rule. Some Ph.D recipients just can't teach at all and some people teach very well without an advanced degree.

    My experience comes from attending many wonderful university lectures and listening to my high school friends complain about their community college teachers who didn't know shit. Also, knowing about a specific area of interest makes you more interesting in the social realm ;)

  3. I'm not saying that a PHD is worthless for education. I'm just not sure if it is worth the investment if the primary goal is to become a better teacher. I never went to community college myself, but I can tell you that some of my university professors did not seem to know shit.

  4. Of course getting a PHD won't make a boring disconnected sap a better teacher.

    If you're already a good teacher, PHD or no PHD, reading primary sources couldn't hurt.

    Just wondering, about how much time would you spend reading primary sources from a particular time or event before you'd call yourself a historian?


  5. It's hard to say when a person crosses a line from layman to historian. When I say that I am not a historian, it means that my primary function is not doing research. Research skills do not necessarily translate into teaching skills.

  6. I am in the middle of this debate right now. I am on sabbatical for a year doing a second masters. I have created the opportunity to do a Ph.D. by starting a collaboration with a new lecturer. I have to say that I am really jazzed about the research, and much more so then when I did my first 4 years in grad school in the early, mid 90s. The trade off is, it will take time away from the family, there is no professional reward for doing a Ph.D (have a job, and it won't change the payscale) and it will cost about 20K dollars. In the process I will do another 3-4 conference papers and a journal article that MAYBE 50 people will read or hear about.(Which will be wrapped up in my thesis which no one will read unless I assign bit of it to my students of the next umpteen years.) However, I probably won't have the opportunity again (I will be in my late 40s on my next sabbatical) The main reason to do it is that it fulfills one of those life goals that you set, and when you don't achieve it, you do look back with regret. I think the main thing that pushes me forward is just how much better of a student I am now then I was fifteen years ago. I am actually proud of the papers that I am writing and feel that they are my best work, instead of just good enough to get the grade. I spend pretty much ALL of my time focused on research and reading. I am happy with the person that I am as a student. I hope that I can make it work (doing a Ph.D. part time as a follow up on my MS thesis). I worry that I won't be able to get anything done remotely because of the 0 sum game nature of family, job etc. I think getting a "do over" at 38 is a super thing, and you won't really know until you try it. So, I agree with every point you made (A Ph.D. won't make you a better teacher, the output of whatever discipline you choose is pretty much totally irrelevant etc) so that leaves only these reasons to go forward, you like the person you are when you are doing the Ph.D. and find that it makes you stretch yourself in ways that you wouldn't do unless forced to.

  7. I wrote a couple of other posts that relate to this topic. One was on time management, and the other speculating on whether or not I have untapped potential. I have this nagging feeling that I could actually be really good or great at something, but my various insecurities and/or the desire to do many different things get in the way. In a sense, this blog is an experiment in both stretching my intellectual abilities and seeing if I have any real talent in this area. The problem, as you shared, is that it pulls me away from time with friends, family, the racquetball court, etc. Life is all about opportunity cost in the end. To get one thing, you have to give up something else. The trick is getting the priorities in line. For now, I'm going to keep writing as much as possible. At least if I give this a legitimate shot, I don't have to wonder about what might have been. As for a PHD, I don't think that is in the cards for me. Truth be told, I want to teach more than do research (although the idea of doing nothing but dive into History is appealing at times.) The only problem is that my part-time status makes the future uncertain. In a sense, we are both in the same boat. You're just living more of the intellectual/academic dream than I. At this point in my life, however, finding the right balance between personal aspirations and family is the top priority.


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