Why Care About the O’Bagy Affair?

by Henry Farrell on September 12, 2013 · 10 comments

in Blogs

Tom Ricks and Dave Weigel partially defend Elizabeth O’Bagy, the think-tanker who pretended she had a doctorate from Georgetown. Ricks’ take is that Washington DC society is too hung up on credentials, and there are many fools out there with doctorates. Weigel’s take is that no-one really would have cared if she had only had an MA degree – therefore, while she had to lose her job, she doesn’t deserve the public excoriation. From within the academy, both Dan Drezner and Steve Saideman defend the Ph.D. as representing an extraordinary amount of work.

I don’t have much to say about the ethics of Ms. O’Bagy’s actions – it seems a cut and dried case to me (Weigel is wrong to think that she just hadn’t defended – people in Georgetown are saying she was never in a Ph.D. program in the first place). But there are some interesting questions about the value of a Ph.D. in Washington DC in the first place. Some think tanks value Ph.Ds more than others – as Thomas Medvetz points out, think tanks vary substantially in how much they value academic capital (as opposed, say, to its journalistic or policy making equivalents). This may help explain the disagreement between Ricks and Weigel – they likely move in somewhat different circles of wonkishness (Ricks is at the Center for a New American security; Dave is a well connected journalist).

Whichever which way, the value of a Ph.D. as a credential in the think tank world is mostly unrelated to the things that academics care about. Academics tend to specialize heavily – newly minted assistant professors spend their first few years living on the fat that they have stored up during their dissertation research, and trying to turn it into peer reviewed publications. Think tankers may or may not use their dissertation work to get started – but are valued for a certain class of intellectual agility as much as for expertise. Acquiring detailed knowledge in a particular area is important, but so too is the ability to switch rapidly to another area if and when the market dries up. Thus, in the academic market, a Ph.D. signifies that you have an active research agenda in a particular area (and people are likely to care lots about the specifics of your dissertation). In think tank world, people may indeed care that you have a Ph.D., but see it more as a general signalling device. If you’ve learnt lots of relevant things doing your dissertation, great. If you have learned lots, say, from pursuing a policy job before your Ph.D., which is completely unrelated to your actual research, that’s great too, and maybe even better. Your reputation for expertise may be reinforced by a Ph.D., but it doesn’t necessarily depend on your dissertation research.

This is also reflected in the attitude of media towards academia. Any professor in a DC university quickly gets used to random cold-calls from media outlets looking for commentary on topics completely unrelated to their research. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing – all that matters is that you can call yourself a professor. Also, in a subtly Bourdieuian strategy of distinction, professors in US universities rarely refer to their doctorates and almost never refer to themselves as Doctor X or Doctor Y. This is better to distinguish themselves from those who have doctorates, but are not professors, just as surgeons in the UK and Ireland invariably want to be referred to as “Mr.” or “Ms.” X or Y, despite having trained as doctors (they revert to an older style of nomenclature to stress precisely that they are not mere doctors).

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