Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What does a doctorate mean?

The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST) defended its decision to confer a PhD summa cum laude in Civil Law to impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. While the Constitution of the Philippines and tradition upholds the academic freedom of universities to confer doctorates, it leaves us asking a question on what does a doctorate mean?

The PhD which is from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor is the highest earned academic degree in many universities. In Commonwealth and European continental universities, a higher doctorate may be awarded in the faculties of medicine, science, theology, divinity, law, arts and letters and of course philosophy. The faculty of natural sciences which became independent of philosophy only after the medieval period, began awarding a Scientia Doctor or Doctor of Science (DSc) much later on.  In awarding these higher doctorates, the faculty of the University has to look into the portfolio of research work that is beyond the PhD. It may be said that the PhD is a junior doctorate in which the candidate just has to prove to the satisfaction of the faculty that he/she is capable of doing original and independent research beyond what is expected of the Magister (Masters) degree.

The PhD is therefore the start of a career in advancing knowledge and not the summit of a career. Thus it is no wonder that new PhDs are appointed as assistant professors and not as associate or even full professors. And certainly a new PhD cannot be appointed Dean of a faculty or college. In Germany, the equivalent are a Dr Phil (in philosophy) Dr Rerum Naturalium (Doctor of the all that is about Nature), Dr Rerum Politicarum (Doctor of all that concerns human societies), Dr rerum Oeconimus (Doctor of things that concern economics) etc. This doctorate does not qualify the holder to teach in university but may qualify him/her to assist the professor as a teaching assistant (which in the US system is done by doctoral students with a Masters) or to do  research in the lab of the senior professor. The higher doctorate in Germany and many European countries is the Habilitation. Most people who get the higher doctorates are at the end of their careers.

The higher doctorates, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Science and Doctor of Music may qualify the holder to be a full professor. In the US System these higher doctorates were translated into mainly honorary doctorates honoris causa which is Latin for the sake of honour. The university recognizes the great work that the candidate has done or his/her philantrophic efforts. In many cases, the university that does not grant a higher doctorate essentially recognizes the high quality of research or creative work done by the individual by conferring the honorary one. The University of the Philippines has conferred honorary doctorates on Nobel Prize winners in the sciences and on great writers. However in many cases also, the honorary doctorate is awarded due to blatant political accommodation!

The Doctor of Medicine (MD) used to be a higher doctorate in medicine, with the holders permitted to wear the Doctor's Red gown. However as the profession developed, it became a professional doctorate.  In professional doctorates, the holder is qualified to practice his/her profession (subject to accreditation exams of course by professional regulation agencies). It is a first professional degree in many countries. Examples of professional doctorates are in law (JD), dental surgery (DDS/DDM), veterinary medicine (DVM), optometry (DO), education (DEd) etc. These doctorates are not equivalent to the PhD since the research component does not form a majority of the plan of study. Holders of professional doctorates are entitled to be addressed as "doctor".

In some European countries the MD remains a higher doctorate for the profession, somewhat equivalent to a PhD since it is more research based and the candidate has to defend a thesis/dissertation. The most famous Filipino who finished his MD dissertation and submitted it but never defended it is Dr Jose Rizal. Dr Rizal is by convention addressed as "Doctor" since it is a privilege extended by the medieval universities to all practicing physicians even if they do not have an MD. Physicians who have an MD are addressed as "Professors of Medicine" which means they teach in medical school (the orthopedic surgeon who treated me in Australia when I was a PhD student was a Professor Muggeridge). Strictly speaking a physician who does not practice medicine cannot be called a "doctor" but that is moot since almost all physicians have a professional MD from medical school! In the Commonwealth and in Europe the first professional degree for doctors is a MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery) or a Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery (which Dr Rizal had). The two qualifications may be equivalent to a Masters degree.

In contrast to Rizal not having defended his doctoral thesis,  Antonio Luna did, with accolades, and he got his Doctor of Pharmacy (DPharm) from the University of Madrid. The DPharm used to be considered as a higher doctorate (it is now a professional doctorate) and so Dr Antonio Luna was qualified to be the Dean of Pharmacy of the Universidad Literaria de Filipinas. General Aguinaldo appointed him but the university functioned only for less an academic year. But as history has it, Luna became a General of the Revolution having studied tactics also.

With short review of what a doctorate is all about, let us summarize some important points. A doctorate requires

  1. demonstrated original contribution to knowledge (PhD and other equivalent research doctorates)
  2. demonstrated excellent contribution to knowledge advancing a discipline (the higher doctorates)
  3. demonstrated honing of professional skills beyond what is expected of a professional first degree (professional doctorates)

These doctorates require research training at different levels. But what about UST conferring a PhD on Chief Justice Corona? The UST says that Justice Corona fulfilled all the requirements of the PhD in Civil Law and that his paper (which was eventually published in a journal) was equivalent to a doctoral dissertation. I do not question that. But what determines the academic impact of a doctorate  is whether the dissertation/thesis has a life after it is defended. Like many PhDs, my doctoral thesis is in the "morgue" called the library (and the National Museum!) and the two published papers that came from it it are cited a few times. And so that is the academic impact of my PhD. What is important and has more impact are things I have published after my PhD.

The most famous low impact PhD of them all is none other than Dr Karl Marx, whose doctoral thesis submitted in 1841 "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature "hardly anyone remembers today. We remember Marx today not for that thesis but for "Capital" that he published in 1867 and which changed human society and history forever.

Another notable low impact PhD is Dr Karol Wojtyla whose doctoral dissertations in theology, and philosophy divinity are hardly remembered except by specialists. Wojtyla became a Pope, John Paul II and those scholarly encyclicals and books which he wrote as Pope changed much of late 20th century history. For that he received higher academic accolades and he is on his way to becoming a Roman Catholic saint.

And so history will judge the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas on what will happen to its controversial PhD candidate Dr Renato Corona, AFTER the PhD had been conferred. It sure to be interesting to see!

PS: The UST should not fish for Red Herrings on Ms Marites Vitug!


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