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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Assessing the Value of Research in the Chemical Sciences: Report of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1998.

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Assessing the Value of Research in the Chemical Sciences: Report of a Workshop.

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8Scholarly Research: Oxymoron, Redundancy, or Necessity?

Jules B. LaPidus

Council of Graduate Schools


In 1991, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), an organization of some 420 institutions that grant approximately 98 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States, published the results of a study entitled The Role and Nature of the Doctoral Dissertation. 1 Briefly, the study involved 50 universities, all of which were asked to respond to a survey about dissertations, using whatever campus-wide group the institution usually convened to consider broad questions related to graduate education. In most cases this was a graduate council; in some cases, ad hoc committees were appointed.

The questions were very broad:

  •  Is there a consensus across disciplines about the distinguishing characteristics of doctoral research? Of the doctoral dissertation? If there is, what is it? If there is not, what are the points of disagreement?
  •  Are students allowed to use work done in collaboration with others as all or part of the dissertation?
  •  Can a student's previously published work be included in the dissertation?

Other questions concerned such topics as the time needed to obtain a degree, the role of the advisor, and the final defense.

We also asked that the respondents consider what the ubiquitous adjectives "substantial," "significant," "original," and ''independent" really meant in describing doctoral research and dissertations. Someone even revived the old story of the external examiner who claimed to find a dissertation both significant and original, but noted that "unfortunately, the part that is significant is not original, and the part that is original is not significant."

I do not intend to describe the study in detail, but several points are directly relevant to the topic of this paper. There was some skepticism at first about trying to define the dissertation in a discipline-free way. Some people doubted that they could have productive discussions about the concept of the dissertation across fields as different, for example, as chemistry and classics. As it turned out, there was agreement across all fields that the dissertations served two purposes: to allow students to demonstrate that they could do whatever people in that field did when they did research, and to produce research that constituted a (significant? original?) contribution to knowledge. These two very different skills are generally considered necessary conditions for the award of the Ph.D. degree in most countries and educational systems.

There was, however, some divergence of opinion (mainly by discipline, although occasionally by institution) about what constituted appropriate Ph.D. research. At some institutions, laboratory research on topics that rank high in national funding priorities was considered most appropriate, since they were thought to represent a kind of "peer" consensus of significance. In some areas, research in theoretical areas was valued more highly than research on practical problems. As stated by one physicist, "Ideally, a dissertation project would be self-contained, would allow individual initiative to flourish, and would address philosophically interesting and non-trivial issues." In practice, many styles of research in physics are not compatible with these "ideas." A graduate dean put it more generically: ''Whether the student works alone or on a team, the research project should be an original, theory-driven investigation characterized by rigorous methodology and capable of making a significant contribution to knowledge about the subject under study."

Historically, research has been the characterizing element of doctoral education. Whatever else was done, research was always the centerpiece. Doctoral students had to complete, as in Ireland, "[a] substantial thesis making a significant, original contribution to knowledge." 2 This was the only requirement for the degree, and much the same held true for almost all European and Asian universities. (It is interesting and perhaps revealing to note that in these countries, demonstration of the ability to do original and independent research was referred to as "preparation for an academic career.") Although some or even most students might take courses, the main tasks (as stated, for example, in Japan) "are to submit a doctoral dissertation and pass an oral examination within three years."3 In some countries, notably China and Japan, it is possible to obtain the degree without being at the university, by submitting evidence of research accomplishments acceptable to the faculty. There are variations of this in other countries, including the United States.

The idea of required courses, or of a graduate program involving both research and coursework, has been associated primarily with the United States and Canada and is gradually becoming the norm in most places. The principal reasons for this are related to the desire to provide students with a broader background so that they will be better prepared for a wider variety of career options, and to ensure some general understanding of their fields, particularly as the number of students increases. As Stuart Blume points out, "The attractiveness of the North American model has derived from the fact that it has seemed able to ensure effective and efficient training of researchers on a much greater scale than has been usual in European universities."4 In other words, graduate education is becoming more programmatic as study demand and employer diversity increase.

In Britain, the discussion has centered on the relationship between research and research training, with strongly held views on the role of each in doctoral education. An excellent summary of some of the arguments on either side appeared as part of a publication on postgraduate research training in Europe.5 A few of these are worth mentioning here. Those in favor of more training argue that it does the following:

  •  Provides a more structured transition between undergraduate and graduate school;
  •  Provides a focus for student-student and student-faculty interaction—lowers isolation;
  •  Overcomes narrowness;
  •  Provides a broad range of research skills, not just those associated with dissertation;
  •  Increases employability.

Those opposed to a formal training component believe the following:

  •  There is no natural set of techniques that would fit all students in a discipline;
  •  Courses would be general, and students' needs are specific—a waste of valuable research time for students;
  •  The imposition of formal, compulsory, taught courses calls into question the whole definition and meaning of a doctorate;
  •  The imposition of formal training is the result of state-induced restructuring of the university system driven by a narrow conception of national economic need, accompanied by increasing emphasis on the industrial relevance of training.

For the most part, graduate deans and faculty members in the United States and Canada tend to take a broad view of dissertation research projects. This is based firmly on the idea that the doctoral research project is an apprenticeship whose major purpose is to prepare students for careers in advanced scholarship and independent research. It is not at all clear, however, that this goal is universally shared. Different conditions—scientific, economic, political, academic—can markedly alter the concept of doctoral education. Two examples will suffice. As stated in a government policy paper on science produced in England in 1993, "The government is concerned that the traditional Ph.D. does not always match up to the needs of a career outside research in academia or in an industrial research laboratory. A minority of those studying for a Ph.D. in science, mathematics, and engineering can realistically expect a long-term career in university research. The majority will move into other fields."6 In an interview in 1994, Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, was asked if we should be producing fewer Ph.D.s. His answer was that "if we're moving toward training with a very narrowly focused Ph.D. that's really designed for people who will be independent investigators, then we shouldn't be training so many."7 He went on to talk about a different kind of graduate education that is much more flexible so that its graduates could become K-12 teachers or journalists or be employed on the business side of technical companies.

These statements represent a real departure from a view of doctoral education as an apprenticeship based primarily on the shared research interests of the faculty to one that holds the career preparation of the students paramount. They reflect a perception that doctoral education is much too narrowly focused on research, and not enough on education. The report Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers8 arose in part from this kind of concern.

The American research university was defined by Robert Rosenzweig some years ago as a place "whose mores and practices make it clear that enlarging and disseminating knowledge are equally important activities and that each is done better when both are done in the same place by the same people."9 This once unique and now almost stereotypical kind of university provides a setting for graduate education that involves doing research and learning to do research as parts of the same process. I believe that, in addition, doctoral education must prepare students to understand their work in a broader context than that circumscribed by their dissertation project—that is, at least in the context of their discipline, and preferably as part of science and scholarship in general.

With regard to this issue, the defining moment for me occurred at a meeting of graduate deans in Canada, where we were discussing the CGS dissertation study. One of the deans rose to his feet, identified himself as a chemist, and said that he saw no use in the traditional solo dissertation. This is where the student takes a problem from beginning to end, dealing with the historical background, the literature review, the analysis of various approaches, and so on, and then writes up the entire story. He went on to say that nobody did research that way in the real world, where scientists worked in teams and published their work as it was done, in the form of short papers. He concluded that since the student probably would never again do the comprehensive kind of project usually represented by the classical dissertation, there was no reason why he or she should do it while a graduate student, since he believed that scientists would be likely to have the opportunity to do that kind of research project at least once during their professional career. This elicited a more vigorous but by no means overwhelming reaction from the assembled deans.

This small sample hardly provides conclusive support for either position, but it leads to some useful consideration about doctoral research. The basic question is, What is the purpose of research as a part of doctoral education, and how does what is done relate to that purpose? How that question is answered provides some perspectives on graduate education.

Scholarly Research: Oxymoron, Redundancy, or Necessity?

In a recent paper,10 I suggested that specifying research as the essence of doctoral education was probably not sufficient. Research is done in many places and for many reasons. However, in a university it is not enough to do research just to solve specific problems, or to find answers to specific questions. Research in universities has to extend what we know, help us to determine what questions to ask and what problems to solve, and in the process, educate people prepared to undertake these important tasks.

But the research experience has to extend beyond mere technical training. This has been expressed most clearly by John Ziman. "To be a member of a team directed by a distant and very busy leader, building just one technical link in a complicated experiment, is an inadequate apprenticeship to the art; it is as if the pupils of Rubens were to be accounted artists after five years of painting in the buttons on his larger compositions. High technical standards may be achieved by the student, without a grasp of the deeper intellectual issues." 11 The point is that graduate education must be more than a simple apprenticeship, and that research in this context must be more than a technical exercise for producing research results. It must be a vehicle for preparing scholars.

In thinking about these terms, it struck me that "research" is almost always used to refer to what scientists do and "scholarship" for what humanists do. Research is done in laboratories by people in white coats; scholarship is carried out in libraries by people in shabby tweed jackets with elbow patches. But these are Hollywood clichés; in most cases, the two activities—research and scholarship—are parts of a process so unified in the minds of its practitioners that they might view the term "scholarly research" as a redundancy. On the other hand, many scientists seem to be uncomfortable with the word "scholarship" and may think of research as "hard'' and scholarship as "soft." To them, "scholarly research" probably would be an oxymoron.

I have concluded that there is a difference between the terms, and it is this: Research is something you do; scholarship is the way you think about it.12 Another way to state this is that research is a process for obtaining information, and scholarship is a process for converting information into knowledge. That is why research can be done by teams and scholarship cannot, and why we have research assistants and not scholarship assistants. Research is a verb as well as a noun. You can do research; you can research a topic. Scholarship, on the other hand, is always a noun, taken to mean "the methods, discipline, and attainments of a scholar; learning; erudition." You don't do scholarship or "scholarship" a project.

John Armstrong, in a perceptive article entitled "Rethinking the Ph.D.," stated what I believe to be the essence of the issue: "Many new Ph.D.s have much too narrow a set of personal and career expectations. Most do not know what it is they know that is of most value. They think that what they know is how to solve certain highly technical and specialized problems. Of course, what they really know is how to formulate questions and partially answer them, starting from powerful and fundamental points of view."13 To paraphrase, "They think that what they know is how to do research; what they really know is how to be scholars." At least that is what we hope they know.

Industrial research and technology managers who deal with a variety of different kinds of problems tend to agree with this point of view, recognizing that what has carried over from their own doctoral studies is not the specifics of their dissertation research but rather the generalizations of the scholarly process: how to read and listen critically, define and analyze problems, determine what the important questions are, decide what research needs to be done and how to do it, understand what the results mean, and learn from the entire experience. It is this process of scholarship that forms the irreducible core of graduate education. Academics, many of whom continue to work in areas closely related to their doctoral research, may not always remember this.

During the last few years, several reports and studies have suggested a variety of ways to improve the education of graduate students.14-16 These include offering additional coursework in cognate areas, reinstituting minors in related fields, providing internship experiences in academia or in industry, and developing a greater number of branching options in graduate programs. Whatever is done must add to, rather than substitute for, intense involvement in the processes of scholarly inquiry. That is the structural element upon which graduate education is built and around which scientists and scholars are formed.

Universities provide a unique setting and a particular context for research, and that is what may well define the essence of doctoral education, which is more about education than training, more about knowledge than information, and ultimately, more about scholarship than research. My conclusion, then, is this: Scholarly research, not just research, is the critical component in graduate education. Scholarly research goes beyond finding answers to questions like, how fast? or how many? or how big? It must deal with, why? and what if? and so what? There is a balance that can easily shift too far in the direction of short-term answers and away from long-term questions. If this happens in graduate programs, universities will have turned from the education of scientists to the training of technicians, and society will be the ultimate loser.


Charles G. Moreland, North Carolina State University: I wanted to make a comment about the multidisciplinary team approach. I would like to suggest that not only should that team be made up of people from the university, but it also ought to include people from outside the university whenever possible. This broadens the educational component for the student. I am also not as sure as you that the team approach doesn't involve scholarship. People are not just gathering information separately. They are exchanging information and learning how to think like others on the team. So, they are developing a thought process that goes beyond what they know and how they put facts and concepts together.

Jules B. LaPidus: I have had similar discussions with a number of people about this particular point. I keep coming back to [Daniel] Boorstin's comment. I think that you end up engaging in discussion with your colleagues about information, and you learn much from the process. But at some point something has to happen inside the individual's head in terms of really knowing and understanding something. Nobody can give that to you; nobody can really tell it to you. You have to integrate information in your own head, and I see a parallel there in terms of scholarship and knowledge.

John T. Yates, Jr., University of Pittsburgh: I was really impressed by your emphasis on the need for coherence in the Ph.D. program and, of course, with the funding scenarios and the typical time constant of many U.S. funding scenarios that is becoming more and more difficult. I was in Denmark a couple of years ago and happened to be there when a major program in Denmark was being initiated. It was a 5-year program, and the first assignment to the group of people responsible for the program was to figure out what was going to happen for the next 5 years of the program. We should see more of that thoughtfulness in the United States.

Jules B. LaPidus: One of the interesting facts—I mentioned it briefly here—is that the so-called American model of graduate education is becoming more and more widespread. In 3 weeks, in Beijing, there is an international conference on graduate education. This is unusual in that, in most countries around the world, there haven't been conferences that have talked about graduate education generically, because in most places there haven't been a lot of people who think about graduate education generically. Graduate deans tend to do that because it is their job, but there haven't been graduate deans in many countries. There haven't even been graduate schools.

At last count there are now about 100 members in the U.K. Council for Graduate Education. The systems are getting bigger, and people are beginning to say, as they did in Denmark, that a coherent structure is needed. I was in Denmark about 4 or 5 years ago, as well as Sweden and Norway, talking about changes in the graduate education system in the United States and found very similar things going on there.

Charles Zukoski, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: With a view from the trenches, I think I can point to Ph.D. research that covers the span that goes from training to scholarly research and that this isn't uncommon. What I took away from your comments was that we ought to redefine and narrow the Ph.D.—to go back to more of a classical definition, which is scholarly research, reduce the number of people who get that degree, and perhaps define a new degree category that involves advanced training. I would like your comments on that proposal.

Jules B. LaPidus: I don't know if I would buy that. You asked me what my view is. I don't think that is quite my view. There are a large number of people who are talking about this concept. The COSEPUP report, if you recall, says there should be three options. One is the traditional doctoral degree, another is to stop at a master's degree, and yet another is to define a more practice-oriented doctoral degree.

Roger Geiger in a recent article talked about the same sort of concept. I wouldn't say that we should forget about the training component and concentrate entirely on scholarly research. What I am saying is that if there is no part of the program that deals with anything broader than the training, then I think you have got a real problem. Then you are not involved in the Ph.D. enterprise anymore but are doing something different. You are training technicians.

I think every graduate program involves some training. One of the big questions in most other countries—take Britain, for example, or Australia—is whether or not the graduate student should do anything other than the dissertation topic. That is where this argument about research training comes in. A lot of people are saying you should know more about chemistry rather than just steroid chemistry. You should have a broader picture of what is going on in chemistry and in science, for that matter. You should have a broader view of that world.



Council of Graduate Schools, The Role and Nature of the Doctoral Dissertation (Washington, D.C.: Council of Graduate Schools. 1991). Also available online at <<www​>.


CEPES Studies on Higher Education, The Doctorate in the Europe Region (Bucharest: UNESCO, 1994).


Burton R. Clark, ed., The Research Foundations of Graduate Education: Germany, Britain, France, United States, Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1993).


Stuart Blume, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Problems and Prospects in the 1990s in Research Training: Present & Future (Paris: OCED, 1995).


Report of the Temporary International Consultative Committee on New Organisational Forms of Graduate Education, Postgraduate Research Training Today: Emerging Structures for a Changing Europe (The Hague: Netherlands Ministry of Education and Science, 1991).


Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Realizing Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1993).


Bruce Alberts, as interviewed by Daniel S. Greenberg in Science and Government Reports, October 15, 1994.


Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995).


Robert M. Rosenzweig, The Research Universities and Their Patrons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.


Jules B. LaPidus, "Scholarship and the Future of Graduate Education in Science and Engineering," paper presented at Radcliffe/CPST Conference on Science Careers, Gender Equity, and the Changing Economy, American Institute of Physics, College Park, Md., October 1996.


John M. Ziman, Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).


Jules B. LaPidus, "Scholarship and Research: Gresham's Law Revisited," CGS Communicator 298 (January):3, 1996.


John A. Armstrong, "Rethinking the Ph.D.," Issues in Science and Technology (Summer): 19-22, 1994.


Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995).


Roger Geiger, "Doctoral Education: The Short-Term Crisis vs. Long-Term Challenge," The Review of Higher Education 20 (Spring):239-251, 1997.

Copyright © 1998, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK45336


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