Why Do I Have a Ph.D.?

Dear Joseph Epstein,

Your Wall Street Journal op-ed has been sent to me many times since being published. You think there are too many of us running around with doctoral degrees we don’t deserve because we can’t read Greek or Latin. The only true doctors in the world have M.D. after their names and can deliver babies. Furthermore, colleges and universities have devalued the honorary Ph.D. by freely handing it out as bling for a graduation speech. Okay, I might grant you the last observation.

As someone who married a man who holds an M.D., I am glad he never saw me as less educated or less worthy of being called doctor. In fact, he encouraged me to keep my last name because I had worked so hard to attain my degree.

I will grant you this, Mr. Epstein: more and more, institutions (private, public and for-profit) seem to be handing out doctoral degrees without demanding much rigor. For example, here’s a recent dissertation accepted by Walden University for a Ph.D.: The Evaluation of the Relationship between Racial Health Disparities and the Patient-Provider Relationship, 96 pages. Yes, on a topic as important and weighty as the title suggests, 96 pages should be about three chapters into the dissertation. But what does the other extreme–passing out during a dissertation defense, as you noted–guarantee? Better scholarship?

Maybe you should have called for a conversation on those two extremes instead of attacking Jill Biden for attaining her Ed.D. at the age of 55. We’re never too old to learn, Mr. Epstein. I really have to wonder why someone of your intelligence who had the opportunity to earn a Ph.D., declined to do so; and now, at the age of 83 years old, has decided to go on the attack. What’s up with that?

My own journey to a Ph.D. was not one I ever expected to make. But the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.

I had two amazing professors as a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student. The first was my thesis advisor, Hap Kindem. The second was my documentary film professor, Calvin Pryluck. Their teaching, nurturing and guidance led to my writing a thesis on the North Carolina Film Board. This was the only film board in America modeled after the National Film Board of Canada and was the brainchild of the late North Carolina governor Terry Sanford and writer John Ehle.

After toiling in journalism for several years (or “raking the muck,” as you might see it, Mr. Epstein), I found myself asking questions about my profession. Those questions were often posed to Dr. Pryluck in writing and in phone calls. He encouraged me to go for a Ph.D. to find answers to those questions. He thought I would bring a unique perspective to the communications literature.

I stayed in the Washington, DC area to attend the University of Maryland-College Park. While I will admit I was not the strongest student in the Ph.D. program, I worked very hard and I learned under more amazing professors: Larry Lichty, Douglas Gomery, Kathleen Jamieson, Harry Elam.

Dr. Lichty pulled me into the program and gave me broadcast writing classes to teach so I could afford to complete my degree. Dr. Jamieson taught me so much about researching and thinking. I had learned the concept of umwelt in high school; she brought my understanding of that concept to a new level. Under Dr. Jamieson we unpacked the documentary Point of Order! by Emile de Antonio. She organized a conference where we connected with an array of people involved in the 1986 presidential campaign; we learned the back stories of all those involved inside and outside the process of electing a president.

My Ph.D. dissertation looked at news and social dramas. It was another academic adventure based in reality (I didn’t need Greek!). University of Maryland Chancellor, John Slaughter, was a leading figure in the social drama which unfolded with the death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias. That social drama became one case study; the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 became the second case study. Because I had worked as a news reporter, editor, and researcher, I had access to interesting people. At the time, international terrorism was a new venture for the FBI.

I successfully defended my Ph.D. dissertation, Mr. Epstein. Yes, I am Dr. Sue Ferrara. I was 37 years old with a 2-year-old daughter in tow at graduation.

Do I think people are getting degrees without enjoying the learning process? Yes. Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs seem to be compressed. Few people seem to have the luxury of being a full-time student anymore, nor can they afford it. For me, I will always be grateful for the lunches I enjoyed with Dr. Lichty. The dinner I had in Philadelphia’s Chinatown with Dr. Pryluck. The time I spent in the home of Dr. Gomery. I cherish my continued relationship with Dr. Kindem who, even today, is supporting me through a challenging time. Dr. Jamieson teaches just across the river from me. In writing this piece, I have learned that Dr. Elam is now president of Occidental College. These are all people who impacted my life in profound ways because we enjoyed time together inside and outside of the classroom.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying: Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death. That’s why I hold my Ph.D., Mr. Epstein, and why I hold it so dear. It was part of my intellectual growth, which continues every single day. My Ph.D. taught me how to look at the world with different eyes.

I am not really sure what your goal was in writing your op-ed, Mr. Epstein. If you feel academic standards have eroded, do you have a solution? Or does it just merely bother you that the next first lady of the United States is going to be called Dr. Biden?

Letter to author from John Armstrong

2 thoughts on “Why Do I Have a Ph.D.?

  1. Dr. Ferrara, I appreciate your response to the op-ed written by Mr. Epstein. I saw the assailing of Dr. Biden’s Ed.D as a mean spirited assault on those who hold the degree and other academic and professional doctorates. I am appalled at the lack of academic rigor I see now days in many doctoral programs and the frequency with which the credentials are awarded. These awards serve to cheapen the credential in my estimation but such is today’s world in academe. I come from what some refer to as “cotton stocking” scholarship but I can say with assurance that my doctoral program at Mississippi State University was academically rigorous and we were well schooled in our discipline. The Counseling Department chair introduced himself to us and stated “You may not be a better Counselor ( all of us were already licensed professional counselors in our state of residence) if you complete this program but I can assure you, you will be a better researcher and writer. That proved to be prophetic. Of our initial cohort of twelve students selected from an applicant pool of six hundred, less than half completed the program. I would consider that attrition rate significant. It appears Mr. Epstein fails to understand the concept of lifelong learning and that there are those who simply accept that the next academic or learning mountain is simply a challenge and worthy of the effort to climb. When journalism such as the assault on academic credentials reduces itself to insult and projection of one’s own biases it served only to divide. If I could offer Mr. Epstein one commentary on life long learning, it would be “I have invested a lifetime in learning and my last act of learning will likely be learning how to die.” Hopefully I will do that with a degree of dignity.

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    1. Dear Rev. Dr. Peavy,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. We are on the same page. The lack of rigor at all levels of education has been minimized to the point of causing our society great harm. We witness the consequences every day. People can not hold civil conversations, disagree, nor provide evidence for their positions. Instead, discourse has been reduced to name-calling, memes and slogan chanting.

      Institutions of learning who award degrees for little rigor in return for tuition dollars need to reflect on the practice, but won’t. I predict post-pandemic we will see a revolution in public education. We can’t afford to continue on this path intellectually or financially. We need more learners and fewer athletes, for example.

      Are there people running around with PhDs they don’t deserve? Yes. But as my psychiatrist husband always says: Those who graduated first in their medical class and those who graduated last both get the title of Dr.. There are a lot of MDs in the world who don’t deserve to treat patients. And lots of those doctors send their patients to Psych when they can’t figure out what’s wrong. But you likely know this.

      What is the solution?

      Learning how to die. Another great topic in need of exploration. When do we recognize that our time on earth has come to an end; when do we fight to stay alive and why? I am on that adventure now with a loved one. I must say, I don’t think I am doing a great job with the lessons.

      Be well.

      Sue

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