November 19, 2014

Teaching Professional Skills… what exactly is a “Doctor of Philosophy”?

Posted by Laura Guertin

There are some topics we can address with our students in intro to advanced courses, with non-majors to STEM majors, to help them develop professional knowledge and skills to succeed as students and in their future careers.  This post provides an example as to why we may want to explain our own educational degrees to students.

True story… student walks in to a faculty member’s office, sees the diploma hanging above her desk and comments, “Wow! For someone that has a degree in philosophy, you certainly know oceanography really well!”  [Note that my PhD is in marine geology & geophysics]  Alas, this is not a one-time occurrence, where a student thinks I have a degree in the humanities, yet I’m teaching science courses on campus.  What can we learn from this and teach students when they see our diplomas that state we have a “Doctor of Philosophy”?

I actually spend a few minutes one class period – not the first week of classes, but later on in the semester once the students know me better – to review the “alphabet soup” that are degree designations.  I take the time to go over the differences between the BA and BS of a bachelors degree, and how our own institution defines the differences, and sharing that yes, some institutions only confer BA degrees (even a BA in physics!).  I also review the different masters degrees (MA, MS, MBA, MLS (as our faculty librarians have the MLS degree)), and the differences between a PhD and EdD.

So why do this?  I am finding more and more that students just do not understand what these advanced degree mean, especially with my first generation college students.  Granted, my students have never initiated this conversation and have never asked what are the differences between the degrees, but they are always attentive to this information sharing and ask further questions. It is also surprising to hear students state that they wish to go to graduate school, but they are not always aware of the differences between these graduate degrees – they just want to continue going to school.

Most importantly, I want students to know that I am a scientist, I want them to view me as a scientist, and I want them to believe that I am a reliable source of science content trained in the discipline.  It concerns me how many students see my diploma and do not ask me about my degree in “philosophy.”  But this short period of information sharing, including making students aware that the Greek origins of the term “philosophy” means “love of wisdom,” helps students understand that a Doctor of Philosophy does not necessarily mean a degree in philosophy!

I am curious to hear from others… does your diploma have your discipline listed?  Have any of your students asked you about your “philosophy” degree?