Are PhD's More Intellectual?
July 28, 2013 8:07 PM   Subscribe

Obviously higher education is excellent and should be supported by those who have the want, desire, or ability to obtain a doctorate. The question however that was thrown on me the other night was that a PhD and a friend would have trouble conversing about politics and humanity because they are more intellectual. Thoughts?
posted by profiledefenders to Education (37 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would think it would depend on the subject matter of their PhD. I don't understand how methodic thinking (as a PhD seems to lend itself to) would interfere with conversing about politics and humanity, and how being "intellectual" comes into the mix. Can you be more specific?
posted by absquatulate at 8:12 PM on July 28, 2013

I went to a college that self-selects for intellectual folks. I would say that probably 80% of the folks in my first year classes (so, at the time, having only a high school education) were considerably more intellectual than any of the PhDs I know in my life.

Some people are more intellectual than others. While the sort of person who goes into a doctoral program is probably likely to be intellectual, it's really a born-in trait. It's unlikely that the mere act of obtaining schooling is going to make a "regular" person suddenly become intellectual.
posted by phunniemee at 8:13 PM on July 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

I hold no post-graduate degrees and I have no trouble holding my own in high-flung conversations about media theory, politics, and so on with my friends who do have advanced degrees. The number of diplomas you've accumulated are not always a great marker for how much knowledge you've accrued, nor how good you are at processing and synthesizing information.
posted by Andrhia at 8:14 PM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I got a real good friend who is a Piled Higher and Deeper in engineering. He's lots of fun to discuss politics with. I have a damn good friend with a Bachelor's in criminal justice, and he's not at all fun to talk politics with. I'm OK friends with a Ph.D. in linguistics who is a goddam bore regardless the topic of discussion. I have a friend from high school who is a physician's assistant (I don't know WTF degree you get for that, but whatever) who's a big Jesus-y but pretty fun to talk to.

A Ph.D. is evidence that the holder was able to hold their attention on a topic for long enough to produce new intellectual content on that topic. ←That there's a full stop, bolded it even.

Those are my thoughts. You asked.
posted by cog_nate at 8:15 PM on July 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

The chart is not the patient.

The credential is not the person.

There are a lot of intellectuals out there who don't have degrees.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:16 PM on July 28, 2013 [10 favorites]

PhDs are very specialized degrees. A PhD with a degree in materials science may know no more or less than a random person on the street about politics or humanity (by which I presume you mean society rather than Homo sapiens anatomy). Those are not within the area of their expertise, as opposed to how eletrical flows can create purple fuzz out of gold and aluminum. Similarly, someone with a PhD in sociology may be constantly emailing her friends to ask basic, grade school level questions about history or science. (Not that I'm thinking of someone specific or anything).

I have friends and relatives with PhDs. I have friends and relatives who didn't finish highschool or university. They talk perfectly well together about politics and humanity, with the recognition that some are more expert in some areas than others - and it's not always those with doctorates who are the experts or most well-informed.

Also, when it comes to being a widely read intellectual, my experience is that working academics are less intellectual than people of similar intelligence who are not academics. The need to stay current in their own (often narrow) field takes so much time and energy that they don't have time to read widely and think about a variety of topics. The most intellectual person I know (in that sense) works at Starbucks and is training to be a paralegal.
posted by jb at 8:18 PM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

because they are more intellectual.

Knowledge isn't the same thing as intellect. I know plenty of uneducated people whose street smart feel for politics I value far more than opinions of any PhD. Sometimes knowledge is a hinderance to plain old thinking.
posted by three blind mice at 8:18 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also think it depends what people are talking about, and what the person has a PhD in. I can see not wanting to have a late night stoner conversation about, like, what if we don't even really exist, man, if you're a philosophy professor.

But I've heard plenty of people with advanced degrees in the hard sciences have exactly that sort of free-form "whoa, man, I mean think about it" kind of discourse. Because they don't know from philosophy, so whatever.

And, likewise, the philosophy doctorate might not know shit about chemistry, and share a bunch of "OMG THIS FOOD HAS CHEMICALS" Buzzfeed articles on facebook. Which probably annoys his friends with PhDs in the hard sciences.

Similarly, someone with a film PhD is probably hard for the average person to talk about movies with. But that same film PhD is probably like, "but, really, the invisible hand of the market..." when talking about economics. Which in turn pisses off his econ grad student friends who just really loved Pacific Rim, OK?
posted by Sara C. at 8:19 PM on July 28, 2013 [14 favorites]

I am in the process of getting a PhD. Some of my colleagues are interesting to talk about such things with; others are not. Some people who are not academics are interesting to talk about such things with; others are not. It's plausible that this might depend on a person's field (e.g. someone in poli sci is probably going to have more to say about politics than, say, someone in biochemical engineering), but it's also not necessarily the case, because a person's work doesn't define them.
posted by dizziest at 8:20 PM on July 28, 2013

PhD-level researchers generally have their PhD-level expertise in one area. So on average, they shouldn't be any different than any other well-educated person in other areas. In the researcher's area of expertise they generally get lots of practice conversing with people who are less expert in the field so they should be OK talking about that stuff too.
posted by grouse at 8:21 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

The question is unclear to me, especially the antecedent of "they" in "because they are more intellectual." The Ph.D. and the friend? The Ph.D. alone, in an example of the singular they? The topics of politics and humanity?

If you mean to ask whether a Ph.D. would have trouble discussing politics or humanity at a level that was comprehensible to the friend (who presumably does not have a Ph.D.), then it's a common slogan that you don't really understand anything you can't explain to a five year old. Granted, depending on the level of explanation demanded, you may need to bootstrap through several levels of simplifying falsehoods, so the five year old may not be five years old by the time you're done, but in theory you should be able to reduce your highly sophisticated understanding to layman's terms.

If you mean to ask whether a Ph.D. would have trouble discussing it in a way that's interesting for the friend, that may be true. I do know linguists who just get tired of explaining over and over again that, in fact, allophones exist, prestige dialects are a thing, prescriptivist grammar is really not, and other snippets from Linguistics 101. Mutatis mutandis for your field of choice.

I'm assuming, of course, that your Ph.D. defended in a relevant department. I don't think there's any reason to think a CS Ph.D. really changes the way you discuss politics, or even food chemistry. I say this with the experience of discussing both politics and food chemistry with a CS Ph.D.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:26 PM on July 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

As someone said above, a Ph.D. is a very specialized degree. Allow me illustrate.
I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. My friend, also a Ph.D. in the humanities, is married to a man with a Ph.D. in physics.
Now, when we were in grad school, I used to ask Dr. Physics, "So what is your research about?" He would reply, "Ah, no. I cannot tell you. You would not understand it." Of course, I took umbrage. I have a Ph.D., mister! I'm at one of the top schools for my field! I have the power of a massive, massive brain! Nothing is beyond my grasp!
So, my friend and I decided to attend his Ph.D. defense, and to ask blisteringly intelligent questions.
And what happened? I didn't understand one damn thing. To this day I have a vague impression it was about scarves, or something?
There were cookies at the defense. Nutter Butters, I think.
So, to reiterate, even having a Ph.D. does not guarantee that you will be able to communicate with someone else who has a Ph.D., even when it is in a kind of related field. Nor does a Ph.D. necessitate having Deep Conversations. When Dr. Physics and I talk, we usually talk about funny movies and how to make pasta.
posted by pickypicky at 8:34 PM on July 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

Keep in mind that some people deliberately choose not to pursue doctorates because of their cost and the crummy job market for PhDs. That decision implies a certain amount of knowledge, worldliness, and reasoning, I'd say.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

because they are more intellectual

This part is mostly wrong, assuming you mean basically more of a pretentious egghead. Sure, if you were to measure the overall eggheadedness of PhDs and non-PhD's (we call you "The Dirty People")*, you'd find that the average eggheadedness of PhDs is higher. But the average obscures a lot of variation. There are a lot of people with PhDs who aren't pretentious eggheads. Indeed, I'd say that treating your graduate education like a plain old job instead of like a glorious calling by which you will solve the universe or whatever is actually a marker for success. People who treat it as excessively "intellectual" are more likely to either flame out or retreat so far into their own navel that they never actually finish.

Outside of that, it's still mostly wrong. There are two things you can expect. First, you can expect that someone who is an expert in pretty much anything can find it harder to discuss that topic with people who are clearly not expert. But this is true for any field, whether it's physics or political science or bass fishing or automobile repair. It's more likely to show up in some fields than others; there are probably more people who want to talk about politics, or the nature of Man, or what the LHC is doing than there are who want to talk about the theoretical foundations of data structures or Minoan graffiti.

Second, you can reasonably expect that many university faculty find it difficult to talk to laymen about their jobs simply because it can be hard to penetrate the wall of misconceptions. But this is true for anyone with a moderately weird job.

*This is a joke. We don't think you're really people at all.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:53 PM on July 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

...a friend would have trouble conversing about politics and humanity because they are more intellectual. Thoughts?

Because of the wording, I'm having a hard time understanding the question, but in case this is implying that the PhD is more intellectual in a wide variety of subjects.

I don't think that is a fair statement to make and here is an example. I have a PhD in a biological field but my dissertation focused on *one* type of cell in the nervous system. Now I feel comfortable in biology, but.... I have never taken an art class at the undergraduate level. I only took 1 philosophy class as an undergrad and trust me, it was not enough to even comprehend what philosophers do or talk about (as in - how do they do research? No idea....). I barely understand what defines the humanities (not kidding). So I think that it is unfair to say that a person who studies the details of field X can understand field A,B,C--->

I also really enjoy having conversation with people who are intellectually curious, have a novel point of view/perspectives on a subject area(s), and can teach me something new. Along those lines, a person in my life right now who can do this has not yet finished an undergraduate degree. This person is several times more intellectually curious than most people with 4 year college degrees, so I look at it as a characteristic of a person, not a degree.
posted by Wolfster at 9:01 PM on July 28, 2013

Without blowing smoke up my own arse I can honestly say that I hold my own with PhD holders, PhD students, the odd professor and many other people with large amounts of formal education and I don't hold a degree of any kind.

My lack of formal education is not something any of those people worry about either, to my knowledge.

That's anecdata but kind of what you are asking for?
posted by deadwax at 9:20 PM on July 28, 2013

I think that earning an advanced degree is mostly a feat of endurance, although having a slightly above-average intelligence and a decent level of financial assistance helps. I got me one of them Ph.D. thingies, and I think most of us academic types are aware of how much we bore most people. When my friends with Ph.D.s get together at conferences and such, we mostly just drink a lot and talk about Trailer Park Boys -- and not in any sort of "intellectual" fashion, by any stretch. I do a pretty good Bubbles after a few drinks.
posted by quixotictic at 9:21 PM on July 28, 2013

No. But my reason is different. Maybe a long time ago a Ph.D. actually meant something—a process that gave back to society the wise teachers and explorers who asked new questions and extended light and insight. Today, the Ph.D. is all too commonly a badge on the stepping stone of career professionalization in any given industrial sector, with cleverness and virtuosity standing in for sensitivity and intelligence. Of course, this is an exaggeration. But there is truth in it.
posted by polymodus at 9:30 PM on July 28, 2013

It depends on what you consider intellectuality. Generally, someone with a PhD will have had the opportunity, along the long educational slog, to focus on developing a skeptical perspective, critical thinking skills, and the ability to synthesize a large volume of information into a general understanding of a field. I think that opportunity is more available for someone with a PhD than for someone who hasn't gone through as many years of formal education. But there's no guarantee that a person exposed to such opportunities will take them, and there's also ways outside the formal education system that a person can develop such a perspective and skills.

In terms of topics: Someone who's earned a PhD has broad and deep understanding of a specific discipline, and one point of profoundly detailed specialty knowledge about topic within that discipline. But it definitely doesn't translate to deep understanding of anything outside the discipline. Possibly, if a PhD picks up the synthetic skills, and applies him/herself to gathering and analysing information about less arcane topics, s/he might be better-informed about that topic, but I for one have had some damn boring conversations with very well-informed people. I think social skills are probably more important than anything else, here, and I am totally unconvinced (by my firsthand experience) that the educational process to acquire a PhD has any positive effect on social skills at all.

Also I think many PhDs acquire the habit of taking a question too seriously and writing a TL;DR.
posted by gingerest at 9:30 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't understand your question.

Had a friend who was a super prominent PhD, and more, in a discipline I have an affinity for.

He loved our conversations, and for me, it was like having my own private professor at my fingertips. I made great use of the relationship. As did he.

What's the problem?
posted by jbenben at 9:34 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

(I guess I should have mentioned that I have a PhD, and my favorite conversational partner on earth has no formal degrees and is much better at casual conversation in social settings than I am.)
posted by gingerest at 9:39 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

To expand on my previous answer...

We never had problems communicating about politics and humanity. In fact, that was the draw for both of us.

What back story is missing from you AskMe?
posted by jbenben at 9:39 PM on July 28, 2013

I'll put it this way: I do not comprehend what it is, exactly, my Ph.D holding friend does for work. It seems to involve sociology, statistics, and compiling computer programs a lot. I don't do computer programming, so that stuff pretty much flies over my head. But that doesn't mean we don't manage to have plenty of conversations about OTHER things (crafts, geek movies, even politics) that I comprehend out of her just fine. Likewise, there is a computer genius in my family that works for Google and he can have plenty of conversations with you on a wide variety of topics--sometimes even related to his work--and it's fine to not be a super intellectual there.

It is what you make of it. Their job may be quite difficult, but it doesn't mean that Ph.D's can only talk to each other for the rest of their lives because the rest of us are hoi polloi or whatever.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:02 PM on July 28, 2013

You might have trouble conversing with someone about politics who holds a PhD - not because they have a PhD, but because they have different motivations - much the same way you might have trouble conversing about politics with someone who loves Fox news. Trouble is not synonymous with 'don't try', but it is synonymous with 'prepare to have your mind expanded'.

A few PhDs I know are awesome at discussing political stuff with - while others I prefer to discuss their specialties. Some folks have great social skills, and others demand more effort if you want to socialize with them. Conversation is what you make of it.

Also, I highly recommend talking to some folks who definitely aren't PhDs... you'll find they can be awesome to talk to as well. I repeat: Conversation is what you make of it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:05 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

So the contention would be that any random person with a PhD is going to be more "intellectual" than any random friend? Somebody actually argued that? Sounds like there's a bit of idealization going on. Instead of discussing people with PhDs as if they are mythical beasts, why not talk to a few? It wouldn't take long to observe that not every person with a PhD is a passionate intellectual WRT to topics outside their fields. It is also not difficult to observe that not every passionate intellectual has a PhD.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:44 PM on July 28, 2013

I agree with everyone who's said a PhD in a random field would generally have little impact in how one discusses other topics.

However, there are some people out there whose egos get inflated by their degrees, and it'd probably be difficult convincing them of anything (if anything, I think that personality type is more common outside the main thrust of academia).

There's another phenomenon that could come into play, as well: I've found that (in a wide variety of fields and universities), the more senior a faculty member is in the ranks, the more convinced they tend to be that they are going to be correct on topics further and further from their subject of study (e.g., a senior mathematician may have very firmly entrenched opinions about masonry).
posted by janewman at 11:50 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

PhD have a different method of inquiry and a different way of viewing evidence and constructing arguments than a regular person does.
I, for example, have a hard time listening to anecdotal evidence.
posted by k8t at 12:23 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of people with Ph.D.s. In my experience, there is hardly any correlation between the having of a Ph.D. and being intellectual in the way you mean it.

I've noticed that in many ways Ph.D.s will often be less intellectual than other people who are intellectually inclined but didn't go as far in school. Academia tends to be very harsh and unforgiving for a certain kind of person with wide ranging interests.

Getting a Ph.D. sort of requires you to put blinders on for six or more years, and the types of people who can do that are often not very intellectually interesting.
posted by Unified Theory at 1:03 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

We're talking about a PhD in the humanities, perhaps?

People who (as PhDs should be) are trained to see both sides of a deal and to mistrust their gut-reaction regarding hot topics are actually - ideally - better suited to discuss topics like politics or humanities.
And I mean, to discuss these topics with no matter whom else: public outreach is the no. 1 hot topic in the field, because that's where all the money comes from. PhDs should ideally be trained to converse with non-PhDs in a very good way about pretty much anything.

(Being intellectual and acting intellectually are two different things, too. Maybe you've confused these.)
posted by Namlit at 2:23 AM on July 29, 2013

Too much "topic" in my last one. Sorry.
posted by Namlit at 2:25 AM on July 29, 2013

I spent twenty years in an ivory tower university town and found that many people with phds were pretty dumb when it came to areas outside of their fields. I also knew many very smart interesting people who didn't have any degrees. I did eventually subject myself to the rigors of doctoral research but kept the same friends and have not had any problems continuing to communicate with them. However, I do believe that knowledge should be shared as widely as possible in accessible language. Too many highly educated people boost their egos by assuming a superior stance and by using obscurantist jargon when it is not necessary.
posted by mareli at 6:22 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

PhDs are trained in / selected for critical thinking skills, which means that they're good at evaluating evidence from a variety of sources, and using that evidence to support an argument.

You do not have to have a PhD to have these skills, however, and a few people manage to slip through the PhD process without gaining them.

I sometimes notice that my less-credentialed friends are not supporting their assertions with effective evidence, but I'm still interested in their opinions and point of view. Not every discussion needs to be a well-reasoned, rigorously-argued debate.
posted by BrashTech at 6:56 AM on July 29, 2013

Several people in my family have PhDs, and my mom's PhD is in progress (if she ever finishes...).

I don't think getting a PhD has given them any sort of intellectual superpowers, or the inability to converse with anyone who doesn't inhabit the same ivory tower.

I don't think my mom has ever started a conversation with me about the effects of nanoparticles on the north atlantic tomcod, and if she did I probably wouldn't understand a word.
posted by inertia at 8:27 AM on July 29, 2013

I do not understand the question. But responding to other comments: PhDs are trained in critical thinking in specialized areas. Some apply these skills outside of their areas of specialization to various degrees, some do not. Some believe that they are applying their critical thinking skills outside their areas of specialization, some do not; and this is not necessarily 100% correlated with actual application of critical thinking skills (no doubt applies to me at times as well, even though I think I am always careful about applying the same sort of critical lens in all areas:P), same as is the case with non-PhDs.

But as Nanuckthedogog alluded to, there may be a difference beyond the academic training. For one thing, there are potential class differences: PhDs predominantly come from upper middle class backgrounds. Also, people who have PhDs are more likely to be related to or have closely known someone growing up who had a PhD than the general population. (This is more pronounced in the US than among those who grew up in countries with more equitable access to education at all levels, so there's an economic class factor here as well, but my vague recollection is that there's still a difference when you compare PhDs with people from similar class backgrounds without PhDs.) So, firstly, there doesn't seem to be a lot of social mixing between academics and non-academics, so just lack of knowledge of each other is some impediment to casual conversation. But also there is the intersection of classism and attitudes of professional privilege, as well as neither-here-nor-there differences in ways of talking and communicating (both class-based and resulting from academic training), such that some non-PhD-holders that I know who are also not from upper middle class backgrounds, but who have had multiple opportunities to interact with PhD-holders, report that they often find the interactions interesting but not the most agreeable, since they feel talked down to or judged.

Despite overall trends, there's enough variation that it seems to me that whether or not the friend and the PhD would get along and enjoy conversing with each other really depends on the individual people.
posted by eviemath at 10:06 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Having been employed for over ten years in a university setting, surrounded by PhDs who relied on me to keep their lives in order, I can promise you that many PhDs are PhDs not because they're more intelligent/intellectual, but because they had the opportunity to keep going to school long after others found it necessary to get busy supporting themselves. Really, there's a class of what we called "permanent students" who get one degree after another because going to school is infinitely more pleasant and less work - at that level - than carrying a job.

Not to denigrate all PhDs by any means - it's hard work and a long haul to achieve that level of education, and I've absorbed a wealth of knowledge from being in the company of good minds, but to answer the question - there's really no connection between intellectualism and the letters behind the name.
posted by aryma at 12:15 AM on July 30, 2013

I worked with two PhDs. One in optics. The other and EE. The EE taught at MIT.

Both of these lightweights were YoungEarthers. Neither could possibly qualify as intellectuals in my personal grading scheme, which is the only one that matters.

A good education can't make up for a bad brain, but a good brain is one helluva lot more desirable than some stale paper certifying infinite focus on a generally meaningless spot of inquiry. Screw that.

An intellectual inquires, examines, studies, hypothesizes, synthesizes, communicates and articulates. The best ones, IMHO (again the only one that matters!) connect reliable diverse information and concepts with a rounded and vast appreciation of a specific passion/subject, and make my brain bigger with their speculations (and some times, conclusions.) It's easy to name 100 of them. It's also easy to spot the posers.

I say connect people. If some are intellectual and some not, they are both better off for the contact. Not up to you to pre-screen on these criteria, unless you are manning a spaceship or a work project.
posted by FauxScot at 6:13 AM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sort of a tangential answer to the question, but there are quite a few fields where PhDs are not offered, or are so rarely offered that a Masters is generally the highest level of education to reasonably expect someone to have in the field. That category generally includes people in creative fields, like writers, artists, and architects, and I've known quite a few intellectuals in those fields.
posted by LionIndex at 8:31 AM on July 31, 2013

« Older what song is this, part MCLVII   |   Needing Resignation Letter Advice Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.