Of Dissertations And Degrees

It’s rare that a news story touches on the experiences of graduate school and academic work, and when it does, it’s perhaps even more rare that news outlets fully understand the ins and outs of graduate work, research, and academic life. The recent story about Harvard PhD Jason Richwine, lately of the Heritage Foundation, has proven to be yet another story about academia which reporters haven’t really dug into deeply enough, although a few have tried. Before discussing some of the reporting, here’s a brief rundown of the dissertation process.

After passing a series of qualifying exams (the type and process of which can vary widely university to university or even program to program within the same university), a student is advanced to “PhD candidacy,” meaning they have attained a sufficient level of learning and scholarship that will allow them to write a dissertation. The actual writing and review process, again, can vary widely. Humanities programs do things differently than social sciences, which is different from hard sciences, etc. However, in general, a candidate selects a committee of 3-5 professors, with one acting as chair, and these individuals supervise the research and writing process for the dissertation. This might mean overseeing each chapter as it is finished, or waiting until a full draft is written and then offering revision notes. In either case, the committee’s job and especially that of the chair is to steer the candidate toward a credible, unique contribution to their field. The committee is charged with approving a dissertation only after the work has been carefully shaped and revised. Once a final draft is complete, the candidate will “defend” their work in a meeting with their committee. (In some cases, the defense is a formality, in others it is a true test of the candidates’ preparedness to graduate) Thus, there are only two possible explanations for the Richwine situation: the committee truly did not perform due diligence and passed a candidate when they shouldn’t have, or the committee approved of the candidate’s reasoning and methodology, which suggests they harbor the same racist sentiments. Either way, not pretty.

So, to the reporting:

  • Jennifer Rubin, conservative writer for The Washington Post, is not someone I read regularly or necessarily agree with. However, she posted some interesting email exchanges she had with a member of Richwine’s dissertation committee. According to Rubin, committee chair George Borjas points out that the committee was both well known and credible, yet when asked for his opinion on Richwine’s dissertation (or thesis, as it is sometimes called), replied “not my thesis.” This, I think, is an important and damning statement on the dissertation process that Richwine–and likely other PhD candidates at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)–underwent.
  • At The Nation, John Wiener wonders exactly how Harvard, that bastion of presumed academic credibility, granted a PhD to a dissertation that ultimately became too problematic for even the extreme conservatism of the Heritage Foundation. Specifically, Wiener asks, “who at Harvard approved this travesty?” He briefly details each member of Richwine’s committee, and notes that the 3 member committee is in charge, essentially, of approving the dissertation. Two of the three members of the committee apparently spoke to Slate‘s Dave Wiegel, (Borjas and Richard Zeckhauser) and continued to distance themselves from the dissertation. The third committee member, Christopher Jencks, has refused to comment. These are also bad signs for the credibility of Harvard’s graduate programs.
  • In Foreign Policy , Daniel Drezner does some good research into the dissertation itself. He observes: “Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I’m familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It’s therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine’s dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn’t convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication. Based on the comments that Weigel and others have received from Richwine’s dissertation committee, one wonders just how much supervising was going on.” Drezner is quite right in noting these particular details (it helps that he himself is a professor at Tufts University) as worrisome; a dissertation is not meant to be a “one and done” project. It should form the foundation for future research and, ideally, provide you with some publishable material to get your career moving after graduate school.

I admit, I’ve long had an anti-Harvard bias, despite hailing from the Bay State and having spent a lot of time in and around Harvard. In fact, the last time I was at Harvard was in 2011, as I was finishing up research on the Free Southern Theatre at the Widener Library–a very nice facility, to be sure. Yet I’ve always felt that Harvard was simply no better than any other institution of higher education of comparable size. The students there aren’t any brighter, the faculty aren’t more special. What Harvard does best is bring in money from alumni, corporations, and other sources, yet tuition remains outrageously high. Current base undergraduate costs top out at $56,407 for academic year 2013-14. Current base costs for graduate students at the HKS comes to at least $46, 591. Yes, college costs are going up steadily, especially at private schools, but it seems particularly bitter that Harvard would charge so much considering the HKS graduated someone like Richwine to a PhD in racism. Clearly, students aren’t paying for adequate supervision or instruction. And lest I sound too preachy about Harvard’s shortcomings, let us not forget that the HKS was also the school that let Paula Broadwell stick around for a few years before realizing she wasn’t adequate PhD material.

All of this to say that despite its pedigree, apparently Harvard, and specifically the HKS, can’t adequately supervise its PhD students. Writing a dissertation is difficult, and the dissertation committee is meant to guide the student toward a reasonable, well-crafted end goal. That requires a combination of caring attentiveness and ruthless honesty. That’s not to say dissertations are perfect texts; in fact, many PhD holders (including myself) might even say our dissertations aren’t even all that spectacular. But they should be credibly researched and not based on racist pseudo-science, which Richwine’s committee absolutely should have helped him understand and revise accordingly. Yet the comments from his committee claiming unfamiliarity with the dissertation and a lack of enthusiasm for his methods suggest they did no such thing. And thus, the HKS looks like a body that just rubber stamps doctoral degrees. If Harvard wanted to repair this state of affairs, it would immediately launch a review of its doctoral programs and dissertation review procedures.

Other students at the HKS are sounding an alarm, since, frankly, Richwine’s folly makes them look bad. 23 student groups affiliated with the HKS have written an open letter, published in the HKS student paper, The Citizen, to voice their concern about Richwine’s PhD. You can read it here.

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