What is the Value of a PhD?

The recent controversy involving a Malaysian marketing headset mike-wearing guru reminds us of a few things. First, when someone says he has a PhD he could mean he owns a Pizza Hut Delivery cap or works as a Pot Hole Digger, or maybe he’s just Piled High in Debt.

Second, simply because the person in question is famous (and a seat at his seminar costs more than 200 KFC Dinner Plates), it doesn’t mean he’s immune to sprouting cow fecal matter. In fact the rich and powerful have an incentive to overstate their achievements more than the poor and powerless by virtue of the fact that more people tend to believe what they say.

Third, PhDs’ — at least in Malaysia — still has that halo effect i.e. they tend to bestow a measure of ‘I-Am-Sexy-And-Awesome-Beyond-Belief’-ness on their holders way beyond what’s properly due. Sadly, many people who have been following the debacle will continue to fork out money (worth a return flight to Hong Kong) to hear this guru speak in person. It will not dawn on these folks that being deceptive about one’s academic degrees constitute a serious breach of integrity and trust which — surprise surprise — goes against everything preached about during these rah-rah sessions.

If you have a PhD or are about to get one, here’s a challenge: How many days or weeks can you manage without mentioning that you have a doctorate? When you meet someone new — and unless you can’t help it because it’s already in your job title — how long can you develop the relationship without ‘casually noting’ that you have a PhD?

Wouldn’t it be way cooler if people observed the way you think and work, felt suitably impressed, and on that basis asked you if you have a PhD?

Fourth, if you’re paying someone anything, always check the name of his/her degree-awarding institution. Even if someone tells you s/he has a Masters in FaceBook or Bachelor in Curry Laksa, don’t forget to a) kidnap their family members (or, failing that, their iPhones) so you can b) force them to tell you where they earned their oh-so-precious certificate from. If they say their alma mater is the South-Western Atlantic University of North Hawaii or the University of Chelsea on Stamford Bridge — you justknow some shit’s going down.

I have seen pretty impressive CVs’ which glow like a 5-minute old bowling ball. But everything falls apart when the items under ‘Academic Qualifications’ jump out like those authentic Rolexes in Petaling Street. These folks might as well have told people they have a PhD from the Massachusetts Institutes of Sexology.

The Emperor’s New Tuxedo

The very fact that people can go Oooh-Lala over three letters (which spell Permanent Head Damage) to the exclusion of what a PhD reflects about a person’s true capabilities, shows how obsessed we can be with titles.

It’s like a reboot of the emperor’s new clothes. No he isn’t naked. In fact, he’s wearing a comfortable t-shirt. But the whole parade tells him Oh, Your Majesty! What a wonderfultuxedo you have there!

Working hard and smart to earn a genuine academic degree, especially a post-graduate one, is an event worth celebrating. But it’s one thing for Anand to get a MA (Finance) which he deserves, and quite another for Ah Kow and Ali to believe that a Masters degree elevates Anand to a ‘higher level of humanity’ or something. Anand’s certificate is a signal that he is capable of performing a selection of advanced finance-related tasks. That’s great but — crucially — that’s also it.

The problem with society is that we have hoisted up academic degrees far beyond the ‘it’ they represent.

Heck, maybe we should envy the Datos’ and Tan Sris’ (and marketing whizz-kids) who bought their qualifications. At least they will never over-estimate the value of the cert hanging on their walls?

Note 1: This is hardly the first time that big-shots in Malaysia have had their academic titles exposed as less authentic than the World Wrestling Federation. In 2012 it was revealed that more than 500 individuals, including several ‘very important’ personalities, had purchased fake degrees. In places like Subang and Cheras, for instance, you can buy ‘original fake’ PhD certs for slightly more than the price of a Portable Hard Drive

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