Alt-Acs and Terminal Degrees

Should you get your Ph.D.?

February 25, 2015
One question I often hear from my alt-ac colleagues is, “should I go for my Ph.D.”?  The desire for alt-acs to get the terminal degree seems to have less to do with acquiring a new set of skills, as skills can be picked up in a range of less onerous and time consuming educational environments. Rather, a PhD for an alt-academic is a signifier. It is the price of admission to full colleague status with the faculty. 
Anyone who has ever worked with someone with a PhD knows that these 3 letters after a name is a poor predictor of competence or knowledge. Getting a PhD demonstrates persistence, or maybe stubbornness in the face of contradictory evidence. A track record of creating new knowledge is essential in the traditional faculty tenure-track career, but a terminal degree has very little connection with most alt-ac responsibilities.  
Does this mean that you should not get your PhD if you plan to work as a non-faculty educator? This is probably an individual and personal decision, and higher education is changing so quickly that any firm career advice is bound to be flawed. 
My bias and my blind spots are in favor of getting the Ph.D. For better or worse, higher education is a caste system. A terminal degree may not buy non-faculty educators entry into the highest caste (no tenure, no expectation of institutional governance), but it does buy you something.  
Do you need to have a PhD to call yourself an alt-ac? I don’t think so. Alt-acs are non-faculty educators. We should not confuse issues of academic caste with academic productivity and institutional contributions.
What is your alt-ac story?
Are you considering getting a PhD?  Why or why not?


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