November 25, 2009

PhD 2.0

When I was a kid, I had a dream that I’d have a Bachelors by 20, Masters by 30 and Doctorate by 40. Given life’s development with our household having a six, four and two year old, the doctorate by 40 is just not going to happen.

Unless, there is another way.

Peter Rawsthorne got me thinking in a recent Twitter post.

do the PhD in the open, create your own curriculum & thesis, use all the technology available, supervisors will find you…

I thought to myself, yes, that’s exactly what I should do. Drive this into the open and see what happens. Walk the talk when it comes to my Learning and Collaboration theorem/lifestyle, and go through a PhD 2.0 experience versus yesterday’s antiquated model. (I just can’t afford the 3-4 years of time devoted to the university experience … again)

Then I found Lisa Chamberlin and found I wasn’t alone in this type of thinking. Two months ago, September 2009, she essentially blogged the same thing I’m blogging about here.

In a nutshell, I’ve got company. (and I love her thesis as well)

So, like Lisa, I’m going to take the time to map out my path, figure out if I can somehow get an advisor to sign on, and post my thinking, research, results, struggles, and general musings here. (or at a sub-site of

If anyone is reading this, got any ideas on advisors or institutions that might take me up on this idea?

Maybe, just maybe, I can hit that final stretch goal. (and thank you Peter for the push)

12 Replies to “PhD 2.0”

  1. Thanks Dan…
    I will be joining you on this PhD journey, I already consider myself started with all the tagging I do, the online book I’ve started on the “internet is the platform”, and the open source project dedicated to open access assessment. Mass collaboration for assessment. Maybe you could work on the open access accreditation. I know I should get the links and I’ll post them again when i have more time. I was discussing this idea during the summer with a friend and he mentioned we could most likely get our advisor from a Finnish University (given their higher ed is free and they are open toi this kind of approach… Stay in touch, keep blogging… Who will be the planets first open PhD???

  2. This is naive of course, but pleasantly so.

    We’d all like to do it this way, but that’s not the institutional model.

    Should you succeed…you’ll have ripped several million bricks out of the Wall.

  3. You’ll still have to find a thesis supervisor who knows as much or more than you abut social learning in a high-performance work environment such as (say) Roger Schank .. few and far between.

  4. Hey…glad to read your thoughts. You are not alone my friend, i too would like to jump in…I myself, have been obsessed with this idea for quiet a long time ! Let’s keep each other going..


  5. Dan and friends,

    If you guys keep this up, I’ll be out of business! (I teach at SFU).

    Seriously, though, I’ve spoken with Peter R about this topic, too, and while it might be attractive in the abstract, I think it might founder in reality.

    Not that I want to discourage you, but…

    – will you keep going without the reward at the end (degree, letters, etc)?

    – who will mentor you, and what will their motivation be (not at first, but over the long run)? How will you keep them on board?

    – while a great deal of a phd is self-directed and/or research based, there remains the course work. How could this be replaced?

    – how would you represent this work to an employer? Especially one that “hires PhDs”? There would be all kinds of implications of them hiring you, I suspect.

    I would encourage anyone to engage in continuous professional development, self-directed or otherwise, but I think that a PhD (at least the ones we give out) is more than that. Or at least different from that.

    Is it perhaps the case that you’re looking for a “phd” and not “a Ph.D.” (i.e., “Doctor of Philosophy from a University accredited to give these out)? Are you looking for some concentrated study, some continuous reflection, some engagement with research and dialogue? All of those things come with a PhD program, to be sure, but they happen elsewhere, too. And if you can – through discussions like these – link up with like-minded people who have similar ambitions you will definitely enjoy yourself, improve your professional practice, and contribute to a better world, one would hope. And if you later on decide that an actual diploma is what you really need, well you can always go for that, too.


  6. Dan, as I told Lisa, riffing off another post, there’s lots to be gained from a strong advisor, but there’s some good guidance available out there (there used to be a doc called “how to get a PhD in AI” that’s been generified I believe and if found had great tips about traps about under- or over-studying. Happy to provide light guidance, having been an academic in a previous life. Good luck!

  7. Dan,

    With the number of like-minded people posting to your blog and mine, I think we have enough to form a “cohort” or at least the social media version of one. I tweet things I find under the #openphd hashtag. Feel free to join in and send others who think things can be done a different way there as well. With enough of us pursuing similar objectives, the crowdsourcing of resources alone becomes a useful exercise.

    Vive la revolución! (That’s the extent of my French, btw).


  8. Hi Dan et al,

    I very much love and admire your enthusiasm for learning! I am all for going against the grain and trying to preserve the elements of your life that are important to you, but what is the end goal for your pursuit of a Ph.D.? If it’s continuing education, that’s great and it begs the question – why do you need the “ticket” or paper on the wall? Do you want to teach at a university or college? Do you want to be recognized as an expert in your field?

    There are two models of education at the doctoral level. The “American” model is loading up with courses. The “UK” model is few if almost no courses (with the expectation that you would be conducting research studies and writing papers). In the UK model, courses would be taken as needed (if you are doing advanced statistics and don’t have the knowledge, you’d take an advanced statistics course – and, trust me, it’s hard to learn that type of thing on your own). I am an advocate of the UK model. I think post-secondary education should be like a pyramid with the Bachelors at the bottom (wide base of courses), then the Master’s in the middle (with few courses, but more targeted in a specialty area), and ending with the Ph.D. at the top with very few courses but the focus is very very specific. It’s very much a research degree and it represents a lot of work reviewing literature, conducting studies, collecting data with appropriate ethics approval, analysing the data, and writing up your findings – and all to a high level of quality.

    Where are you going to get your funding to do your research? Faculty members often fund the research of their doctoral students. With no funding, it becomes hard to do more ambitious projects. It is a full-time job for 3 years (part-time for 6 years). I’m not sure how you can replace that with social media activities on the side of your work/family. There is also more than one advisor – you have one supervisor and typically a committee of 6 by the end – all providing advice on what’s right and what’s wrong with what you’re doing. Each being specialists representing different aspects of your work.

    If you wanted to do your Ph.D. part-time, then my advice to you is to hunt down a program that is more aligned with the UK model, so you can do fewer courses and use the rest of your time in a more self-directed way. The remaining obstacle then is the residency requirement. I have to say that I did part of my degree on campus and part away (after residency was complete). The latter was not very positive or rich in comparison. You do miss out on a lot (a lot of research, work, and teaching opportunities that will enrich you as well – access to expensive equipment, resources, and software – these are typical experiences during your program).

    Finally, you would have no understanding of the university system (and it is a system with complex policies, procedures, and the like with good reasons for being there). If you are seeking a university position down the road, and have no residency experience or campus work experience…

    Again, it all depends on your goals. If it’s just an exercise to support lifelong learning, then that’s wonderful. I love the ideology, don’t get me wrong, but I doubt the system will be changing for decades.

    I think one question to consider is… if you are a supervisor and you have on-campus students paying tuition and working for you and/or folks in the dept and out there somewhere is an “open phd” student who is doing neither, who are you going to spend time mentoring? It takes time to mentor – lots of time. Ask my students how much we spend together. You might find someone to support you in an experience and to be novel (something they’d write up so they can publish a paper) or because you are endearing in your enthusiasm, but I cannot see this happening on a larger scale. I would advise you to go and get a Ph.D. – if you do decide on that, then there is a whole other blog post on how to choose who/where… and there are definitely potholes to avoid.

    All the best,

    Valerie Irvine (prof at uvic)

  9. Well this has been a wonderful, professional tennis match of ideas. Thanks to you all for the comments, suggestions, advice and opinions.

    Officially, as a result of these comments and a month of further personal investigation, I’m back on the fence.

    That is, do I pursue the open PhD and hope to sort it out (ie. the credential – which I do covet) down the road … or … do I pack up and withdraw from a professional paycheque and complete the PhD per the norm of society.

    Valerie – I am really intrigued with your work (and grant) as it relates to the TIE initiative at the University of Victoria. Would love to learn/hear more.

    Thanks again everyone. I’m still mulling …

  10. Hello Dan,

    It was very nice to read your post. I am also doing an open masters in Computer Science, so it’s always nice to come across others who are on their open education journey.

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