Stephen Chilton

REVISED: December 22, 1998


To be presented at the panel, "xx", at the annual meeting of the xx Association, xx place, xx date. I am indebted to Jonathan Conant, Frank Guliuzza, and Janelle Wilson for encouragement and intelligent commentary.





1. The Basic Question

What's the difference among the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral degrees? There are several problems in approaching this:

These are not just theoretical problems. A search committee I served on split badly when the members could not agree on (among other things) whether one of the candidates was doing Ph.D. work. And I recall my horror when a former colleague, asked by a student whether she (the student) had the potential to get her Ph.D., told her that getting a Ph.D. was a matter of time and effort, not any particular mental facility.

2. My Proposed Answer

Because of these problems, I thought it would be worthwhile to lay out, in a preliminary fashion at least, my own concept of these different degrees, in order to share them with colleagues such as yourself and thus see what perceptions exist, what agreement exists among them, and what arguments can be used to reach some consensus.

My view of the different degrees stems from an analogy with the traditional medieval guild distinctions among apprentices, journeymen, and masters, with one additional level added.

The college student is like an apprentice: having little skill or knowledge, but interested enough in a particular field to apply herself to it; of little value as a worker except for extremely simple tasks. Apprentices are no longer indentured in any literal sense, but in effect, the college student indentures herself to the field, foregoing wages for the opportunity to study with masters of the field.

The baccalaureate degree in a particular field represents a statement that the graduate has a particular interest in the subject matter of the field and some understanding of and facility with its methods. The graduate is thus like a journeyman: able to do routine work, and interested enough in the field to bring this ability to bear.

Training for the master's degree involves immersion in the field. The degree itself represents a statement that the graduate has mastered the arts of the field: understands the major approaches, or at least those used in her specialty. Historically, one became a Master within a guild by producing a "masterpiece"--a set of assigned tasks demonstrating one's mastery of the techniques of the field. In academia this mastery used to be demonstrated by a thesis, whose sustained work and broad scope is able to show mastery in a way that comprehensive exams (or even in some cases mere passage of courses) do not.

The difference between the possessors of the BA and MA is in part quantitative and in part qualitative. Quantitatively, both have interest in the field, although the MA has demonstrated a greater commitment to the field. Both have a certain level of mastery of the skills and approaches of the field, although the MA has these to a much high degree. The qualitative difference, and the one I want to emphasize here as crucial, is that the MA is able to do original, meaningful work without supervision.

The term "original" needs some clarification here. In the guild system, a "masterpiece" was not an original work; in fact, original work was looked on with suspicion. As I use the term, "original" means the application of existing techniques to new tasks. If I know how to conduct a survey, for example, then I can apply my knowledge to new issues: new political races; new public opinion issues; new commercial products; new populations; and so on. I don't have to have someone looking over my shoulder instructing me what to do; my knowledge of the techniques is sufficient to allow me to take on these "new" surveys without supervision, thus doing "original" work. But my knowledge does not contemplate my addressing the foundational validity of the methods I've learned.

The Ph.D. I take quite literally as indicating a "doctor of philosophy": someone who is able to "doctor" (i.e., minister to; repair and foster) the philosophy underlying the field, the underlying tenets of the discipline. A Doctor of Philosophy both knows and, more to the point, can stand apart from the philosophical underpinnings of a field. The Doctor of Philosophy cuts deeper than the Master of Arts by examining the very tenets of the discipline with the intention of improving or redesigning them.

The clearest example of this process is Albert Einstein, whose fundamental advances in physics arose neither from the endless acquisition of data nor from novel experimental designs nor from masterful experimental technique, but rather from the clear recognition of the implications of modifying a central assumption of classical physics--the assumption of an absolute time and space. Once one understands both the centrality of this assumption and the impossibility of its proof, one is free to entertain the possibility of other assumptions and to pursue their implications. Intellectual courage and independent thought are required, of course, but the advances themselves become quite straightforward.

Note that the faculty of "ministering to the philosophy of a field" differs from that of doing original research, often taken as the sine qua non of the dissertation. As stated previously, masters are perfectly able to do original research, but this is no great thing: topics without number await our consideration; observations without number can be made in the pursuit of novelty.

3. Other Possible Formulations

The foregoing presents what I see as the crucial differences among the three degrees. It is, of course, possible to differentiate them on quite different grounds. Following are some other possibilities, with my (mostly unfavorable) comments on each:

I end with one final comment. If my sense of the difference among these three degrees is correct, we do Ph.D.s a disservice by hiring them as temporaries, often insisting on the doctoral degree, and then denying them the very time to do research that is unique to their degree. And in a similar sense, although from the opposite direction, we degrade ourselves and our respective fields by permitting ourselves to graduate Ph.D.s who cannot, in fact, deal with the foundations of their fields.


xx (19xx). xx book. xx: xx.

xx (19xx). xx article. xx xx:xx-xx.

xx (19xx). xx paper. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the xx, xx.

xx (19xx). xx book chapter. Pp. xx - xx of xx, ed. xx. xx: xx.

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Author:  Stephen Chilton [email]  |  Last Modified:  2004-10-28
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