Why professors have to be PhD

I had this idea while talking to Jordi last weekend. He said one of the misconception we have in the education right now is that we assume smart people are generally good teachers. Schools are hiring PhDs to be professors, as they are assuming that PhDs, with their acknowledge in certain field, can always guide the students well. However, clearly that is not true all the time. There are students falling asleep, killing time with laptops or phones during class. I think if the teacher is interesting enough, those things should never happen, and students should enjoy the class. Especially after seeing websites like ratemyprofessors.com, you will be amazed that how many professors are not that favored by students.

LACs, like Bucknell, hire professors who are more interested in teaching instead of researching. As we do not have graduate school, so all the teaching are done by professors, not the graduate students. However, is that always a good thing? According to Jordi, most PhD students, especially in science field, are not required to have teaching experience. But they are allowed to teach in colleges as long as they have their doctoral degrees. So basically, a PhD certainly have good understanding in his area, but not necessary a good teacher.

Is doctoral degree always required in college teaching? Not necessarily. Professors in language department are usually not a PhD degree holder. Usually, they are all good teachers, as they are dedicated to language teaching and with enough experience in it. They are definitely not Einsteins in those language, but they can still teach well. I had Japanese class in Bucknell, and Prof. Armstrong, who not Japanese, is one of the best teachers I had here. She is an experienced interpreter, and has been working in professional translating industry for years. Her class is interesting and students are always motivated. Sometimes, she needs a little bit help from the Japanese TAs, who are native speakers, but she is definitely knowledgeable enough to students.

I think other subjects could use the similar approach. Besides the most advanced courses, such 300 level or above courses in Bucknell, most introductory courses could actually be better taught by a professor with better teaching skill and less knowledge than a professor with generous amount of knowledge but worse teaching approach. So in my opinion, professors are not necessary to have a PhD degree. As long as people are dedicated in the subject and teaching, with enough knowledge, they should be able to teach in college. Classes could be more interesting, and students can definitely learn more in such classes. But why all professors have to be PhD? Maybe there are just too many PhDs in the world now?


7 thoughts on “Why professors have to be PhD

  1. I think you bring up some good points here. I have had some great professors and I have had some not-so-great professors. I have no doubt that all of my professors are brilliant and knowledgeable in their respective fields. I have doubts, though, that all of them should be teaching. It takes a special kind of person with a special kind of intelligence to be able to teach in a meaningful way. I don’t think a PhD defines a person as a good instructor. However, I really appreciate that at Bucknell I am taught by professors, not graduate students. I believe that teaching as a grad student may be helpful for those students, but I don’t think it would always be great for the undergrads.

    • Actually, one of the points I made to Xin is that if you are at a big state school, your best teachers may actually be those graduate students who teach sections as opposed to the professor who sees teaching as a barrier to getting research done.

  2. Whew…. Xin. Don’t say this around here too much!

    Professors, like any profession (law, medicine, etc) are VERY protective of the monopolies to labor markets they control by virtue of defining the gate-keeping credential.

    The expectation at Bucknell is that EVERY professor has the “terminal degree” in their field. For most of us that is a PhD. For some, like writers or artists, it could be a Masters, like an MFA.

    Now, if Bucknell started hiring non PhDs as faculty, well, it wouldn’t happen as the faculty hire the faculty, but imagine it did. They could pay those people less, and perhaps capture the savings in reduced tuition. However, every competitor to Bucknell for students would start pointing out that we do not have the people with highest qualifications.

  3. But the core of you idea and criticism is interesting. What makes a good teacher at a LCA? How do we find those people? How does PhD of the applicant matter.

    Informally, I find that faculty who attended LA colleges sometimes have a different awareness of teaching and of the liberal arts. Now, those who went to state schools for their undergrad will probably be annoyed by me saying this.

    Still, I find that we assume that all stakeholders know what liberal arts means and don’t do enough to probe that and what it means for teaching, for research, for being a student here, and so on.

  4. I think that this idea can be applied to many industries and links back to the Khurana and Nohria article we read for class a few weeks ago. Do certifications/qualifications always ensure that companies hire the best individuals in their field? I have experienced both really great and really boring professors in my time at Bucknell, and I agree with raising the question if having a PhD makes an individual qualify to teach at a high level. Sure, I trust that those holding PhD’s in their fields are no doubt extremely knowledgable, but I think being a great teacher takes more than just knowing what you are talking about–it’s more about knowing how to say it and get the points across to your students.

  5. Xin,
    It was definitely interesting to read a post that is similar to my own. While I do agree that all professors who teach should be those who possess strong interpersonal skills, I also agree with Jordi’s comment that having a PhD credential is crucial to protecting professors’ livelihoods. As I touched upon in my blog entry, nothing is worse than having a professor who doesn’t seem to relate to his/her students. Because of this, I think that Bucknell needs to create a system that effectively improves upon the interpersonal skills of professors who students don’t see “eye-to-eye” with. However, I believe that in order to effectively teach an academically rigorous course, professors must have PhDs in their respective fields of expertise.

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