As I mentioned yesterday, I am currently in the throes of preparing for my A-Exam.
At Cornell, this entails the potential PhD candidate presenting their thesis topic and convincing the committee that they are prepared to undertake the quest entailed in the topic. What’s weird about it is that the exam doesn’t happen until the members of the committee feel that the candidate is ready to take it – ie. the candidate is able and ready to convince the committee. Doesn’t this mean that they are already convinced? Yes, yes it does.
The circular logic of the A exam highlights just one of many aspects of graduate school that are archaic holdovers from as long ago as the 12th century, when the first ‘modern’ European universities were established.
Consider the mortarboard – graduates are now expected to wear a plastic-and-cardboard version of a 15th century clerical hat.
PhD programs are one of the last bastions (at least in America) of the medieval tradition of apprenticeship. While it has many upsides, it also means that if someone tells you that they have a PhD, all you really know is:
They spent some number of years doing something under the nominal supervision of someone else with a PhD who a bunch of other PhD’s decided could be a professor until a couple of these professors decided that the aforementioned ‘something’ was sufficient.
A very informative degree indeed.