Sunday, March 25, 2012

Responsibilities, rational and otherwise

Professors have many responsibilities - to their students and postdocs, to their departments and colleagues, to their university, to the scientific community, and to the public. When on a doctoral committee, for example, a professor's duty is to make sure that the candidate's thesis is rigorous and careful, and that the student actually knows what they're talking about. Obviously primary responsibility for supervision of the student lies with the advisor(s), but the committee members are not window dressing; they're supposed to serve a valuable role in upholding the quality of the work.

I have a colleague at another institution (names and circumstances have been changed here; I'll say no more about specifics) who really had to put his foot down several years ago, as a committee member, to make sure that a student (the last one of a just-retired professor) didn't hand in a thesis sufficiently fringe that it bordered on pseudoscience. It was pretty clear that the advisor would have been willing to let this slide (!) for the sake of getting the last student out the door. My colleague (junior faculty at the time) had to push hard to make sure that this got resolved. Eventually the student did complete an acceptable thesis (on a much more mainstream topic) and got the degree. This colleague just recently came across the former student again, and was disappointed and sad to see that the fringe aspects of science are back in what he's doing. My colleague is now feeling (irrational) guilt about this (that the former student is now credentialed and pushing this stuff), even though the actual thesis was fine in the end. This does raise the question, though: how much of a gatekeeper should a committee member be?


Adam said...

Interesting! At first I would say, a thesis makes the PhD. But lawyers' speech is regulated outside of the courtroom, so I guess there's some precedent for restricting credentialed woo. But don't they get new certification every few years? Could this be handled as a Professional Scientist/Engineer License? Can members of the NAS be expelled?

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what the problem is. Plenty of people with phds espouse fringe ideas - Freeman dyson has a nice piece in the nyrb this week about physics on the fringe.

Doug Natelson said...

Anon, I did say it wasn't rational. Still, I sympathize - it can't feel good knowing that one has enhanced the credibility of someone on the fringe.

Anonymous said...

The same can happen when the student is your own and the student needn't even be on the fringe. Common dilemma : student is excellent in the lab but his/her grasp of theory is unsound. Earlier, written exams and/or tough vivas did the needful but many universities have shifted to softer oral exams. Now it is up to the superviser and the committee members to maintain standards.

entangled said...

What enhances credibility of an idea is not the doctoral degree but its acceptance by the community. For e.g. If there aren't enough number of people citing his work, the idea is lost in the rubble.

Let the community decide the worth of an idea than a single person on the thesis committee.

That said, it still is the responsibility of committee members to test the candidate rigorously for reasoning behind his ideas.