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Vacuous minds who give PhDs a bad name

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An opposition MP created shock waves recently with a ridiculous allegation against a politician of a different political party.

The latter has since taken legal action. What is of interest to me is the fact that the opposition MP is said to have a PhD conferred by a well-known public university up north, or so says Wikipedia.

Interestingly, there are many PhDs of such calibre milling around town. It is commonplace to find the “lights on, nobody home” syndrome among these PhDs. The growing cynicism in Malaysia about the superfluousness of a doctoral academic degree is obviously justified.

The late Malaysian scholar and public intellectual Syed Hussein Alatas coined the term “profesor kangkong” a long time ago to describe the number of vacuous dummies parading as full professors in our universities.

They have PhDs, yet are often incapable of critical or rational thinking. Many love to be on camera or to be quoted in the media. The public see through them, and their ignorance of the field in which they claim to be experts.

Worse, many are aware of their ignorance, but choose to do nothing to improve themselves. Ultimately, their penchant for politicking, patronage, toxic behaviour, stroking their own egos, and ‘fast-tracking’ up the promotion ladder overrides any embarrassment their public stupidity might bring them.

Frequently asked questions

Do we need PhDs then? What about abolishing PhD programmes in our public universities? These are questions that have often been asked.

Before I attempt to answer, let us recap the important role of universities and academia in general, in public life and in social change. Many around the world criticise universities as being ‘ivory towers’. Academics are accused of having little relevance to the ‘real’ world.

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Most of the criticism is true, unfortunately. Research output remains esoteric, unreachable to general society, written in inaccessible language, with too much theoretical jargon.

Yet these academics multiply and receive tenure to continue producing such useless nonsense. Many continue to be the ‘go-to’ people for our media whenever comments are sought on a burning news item of the day. Often, this results in embarrassing situations.

We might recall the analysis given by an associate professor of a public university last October, when asked on national TV what to expect of the then UK Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Cost-benefit analysis

Critics lambast most PhDs as being arrogant and entitled dilettantes. Many are perceived by the public as idiots who fail to prove to society that their doctorates are justified.

Also, to the younger generation, a PhD is a bad idea anyway. To them, a PhD-holder is not necessarily one who is well paid. Besides, it is expensive if you have to pay your own way towards a doctorate, though the cost of a PhD in Malaysia is considerably less when compared regionally and globally.

There is also the issue of lost earnings if you choose to do a PhD instead of entering the workforce immediately after your basic degree, while there are others who feel having a PhD would open up the path to their ‘dream job’ in academia.

On that score, the reality in Malaysian higher education today is twofold: first, there are far more PhDs being mass produced than there are academic jobs available; second, even if our 20 public universities and the scores of other private higher education institutions hire these PhD holders, many will struggle to find a permanent position.

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And when they do obtain a permanent job, the majority remain of poor scholarly quality. This is neither helpful to society, nor to nation-building in the long run.

Making a contribution

Some may not want to be an academic but think getting a PhD will increase their marketability. However, unless they are seeking a research job or have accumulated a set of other skills that are of value to an employer, they could find themselves being both ‘over-credentialled’ and under-experienced for many jobs once they graduate.

By the way, I am careful not to use the word overqualified because I doubt the quality of our PhDs to begin with.

Many may want to do a PhD for the sake of ‘completing’ their education. They may hope to educate society in a formal university setting. They would want to experience the process of knowledge production, receiving funds for relevant research, so that they can impart this to the next generation in a classroom setting.

The ultimate aim is to contribute to the bigger picture of nation-building, quality of life and humanity. This can be a powerful motivation, but must one have a PhD to be able to do this?

Do you have what it takes?

Even today, it is widely perceived that having a PhD is still more legitimate than not having one. The public in Malaysia still looks up to someone with a PhD. That is obvious because the first thing we question in any politician who says or does something stupid is their academic qualification. If they have a PhD, both the politician and the university which conferred it will be verbally crucified.

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Personally, I do not have an answer to the question “Why get a PhD?” or “Is a PhD of any use in today’s socioeconomic environment?”

There were a combination of reasons why I did a PhD.

I come from a family of scholars, and this was a passive ‘push factor’. My personality is such that I love engaging in critical debate and questioning my surroundings. I have a passion to educate and a love for simple writing. I knew from my secondary school days that I did not want a 9-to-5 job. My personality naturally gravitated towards the controversial, and to be discerning about my surroundings.

These are necessary qualities if one wants to live the life of a scholar. Maybe I have indirectly answered the questions. – Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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