(c) 2010 Ardfern (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why Your PhD Advisor Hates You: Stratum in Teaching Environments

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Learning 2 Comments

Susan commented on my earlier post about why business schools stink. The post focused on MBAs but Susan linked to her earlier post onCustomer Experience Crossroads (“What’s Wrong With Business Schools: Warren Bennis was Right“) that talks about entry into business PhD programs. I wanted to chime in with a couple of points.

Following my wife around her PhD at the University of Chicago, and then a post-doc fellowship at Valparaiso University, I discovered something that still surprises me: contrary to popular belief, PhDs don’t have to be all that bright. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s just that it doesn’t take only intelligence (stratum) to achieve it. The old engineering saw (you know what BS stands for, and MS means “more of the same” and PhD means “piled higher and deeper”) is truer than most of us want to admit. I think that this is surprising to most business people.

And they have a point about older people not going into the program. That’s a couple of problems. A big one stems from the Law of the Real Boss. That might not be intuitively plain, so let’s look at it.


One of the things that good business people learn is that performance matters. If you’re stuck working for A Moron you might not learn this. Most folks who are successful at business, however, get there by seeing that hard work pays off. We even believe that you are successful at business by making more money or having a larger reputation than others. My point is that business has a built in performance component.

Academics don’t really have a performance component. In a strange way, it’s mostly a popularity game. You have no markers other than the number of published articles and books to say whether or not this person is doing well. Writing one great article that becomes a Citation Classic may get you by, but for the most part you have to have lots of articles. You want certain journals, sure, but you still have to have lots and lots of publications and conference papers. How can you judge between Journal X and Journal Y to mean higher performance? In each field there are the great journals, and if you want to publish in them you need to be tapped for the inner circle of that sub-section of your field.

There are very few markers and your subdomain may be really unknown by even people in your department. Lisa’s study of 15th century manuscripts from the court of Philip the Good is completely foreign to the modernists. This means that you really go by feeling about who is successful.

Which leads the academy to being one of the most political backbiting and backstabbing of any environment that I’ve ever seen. Even “nice” places are nasty. It’s built into the system.

This means that PhD advisors — the current professors advising the graduate students — are even less likely to take kindly to someone who won’t Real Boss them (has a larger capacity or higher Stratum) than business managers will. And we all know how much business managers like subordinates who are more capable than they are.

Graduate students are more or less slaves to their advisors. There are countless horror stories of people who do decent enough work but have somehow ticked off their advisor. There’s a famous art historian in New York whose name comes up a lot in these discussions with the young academics we know, but every field has at least one famous one, with many more dotting the horizon.

If you are a business person who has real-world experience, you will not be welcome. You are probably not going to Real Boss your PhD advisor: you are probably at best peers. So you will threaten him or her. You will also not want to be a slave to your advisor, doing the lousy work that you are three sizes too big to do. You’ll be suggesting ways for him or her to improve the research. Whoa, Nelly! There’s another way to really get sent to the cooler!

Age matters because as we age, we’re less likely to be lapdogs or slavish sycophants. It’s not that it’s competitive, which is certainly true, is that it’s a competition where the rules of achievement are vague and constantly shifting. Older people who have been successful will want to run the show, because they can. And can probably do it much, much, much better than the academics. Plus, age is correlated with higher capacity which as we’ve seen causes problems.

So business PhD programs aren’t that different from any other PhD program. Certainly, unless you were simply getting a certification of sorts in order to get business (being called “Dr” works in some industries), I’d advise almost anyone over 35 to avoid graduate school, especially if they have already had success.

And if you don’t like the arcane language of the journals in your field — I rather enjoy sitting down with my copy of an ACM journals, but they are computing related and not business really — you would probably not enjoy writing for them. This would limit your chances for advancement.

Also, you cannot be thinking about the one great idea but many little ideas so that they can get published. Lisa amazed me at how she could pull several conference papers out of her dissertation work without ever spilling the beans on it. Rather clever, I thought, but hardly something to excite an older person entering the academy.

In the end, the academy is an old medieval guild. You get in by recommendation of those already there. You move through a slavish apprenticeship that creates a strong desire to make others suffer through it. You never really work in a hierarchy, unlike the work world, so you develop the Independent Professional’s attitudes of superiority in every way. Think lawyers and doctors, if you have little experience with much of the academy. If you don’t crawl your way through the system, you have very little hope of being accepted. This is one of the reasons that academics have such disdain for popularizers of theory, besides simple jealousy that this other professor gets all the money and chicks for something they know better.

And I like reading these abtruse journals. I even married a PhD candidate academic-wannabe years ago. It’s just that you can’t go into these things as an older worker without understanding how the academy works. It’s very different and very arcane. It’s feudal, medieval, mystical, and bizarre, with an amazingly little impact on anything we outside do, sad to say.

Image © 2010 Ardfern (CC BY-SA 3.0). Via Wikimedia.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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  2. Thought provoking. Given that people are living to be much older than in the past, we may need to rethink a lot about the whole academic world.

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