This fascinating question has excellent on-line resources for what's
happening today in U.S. and foreign universities. To answer many of
the questions about pre-1900 periods the best resources are in print.
Since the first Western universities were created during the late 12th
Century in Paris and Bologna, the "doctores scholastici" taught
grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music
all of which were in the domain of philosophy. The Ph.D. refers to
the doctor of philosophy, a doctor being Latin for "teacher."
At first, the standards for Ph.D.s have been closely tied to what was
being taught and to religious doctrine, as the teachers were forming
clergy and lawyers. Secularization began during the Enlightenment
but religious control remained strong. With the Industrial Revolution
came more independence from religion and government, but increased
dependence on business funding. The Ph.D. standards changed to meet
the needs of business.
There are varied opinions on what constitutes the proper requirements
for a Ph.D. in the United States today but we can provide you some
excellent resources for further research. Note that foreign
requirements vary highly for a Ph.D. from what is being done in the
Several sources describe the early doctors of philosophy as members of
the teacher's guild, including the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). As
with other guilds, even dress emphasized the difference between
undergraduates in these early universities, who had the shortest
robes; the masters with longer robes; and the doctors with robes to
match the length of the clergy. A reflection of this tradition still
exists in the colors, shapes and styles of cap and gown at
The schools at Paris and Bologna were of such importance that their
Ph.D.'s were allowed to teach anywhere. During this period other
teaching institutions started under a papal or regal bull,
consolidating the church control over teaching. Law and divinity were
the only subjects; it wasn't until the 14th Century that Ph.D.s were
issued for medicine.
As the Columbia Encyclopedia notes, "any teacher or scholar who
extended his inquiry beyond the approved limits was subject to the
charge of heresy." Much of the inquiry followed classical Greek
topics, particularly in math and geometry.
The Columbia Encyclopedia (1995)
Religious control of the universities and their leading scholars
didn't weaken substantially for centuries, as indicated by the trials
of Galileo Galilei, who was Professor of Mathematics at the University
of Pisa. In 1632 the Church banned as heresy his description of the
Copernican system describing the earth's rotation around the sun,
despite substantial research (and even the support in the work of
early Greek astronomers).
Galileo can probably be given credit for two modern trends in doctoral
* experimental confirmation of hypotheses
* exploiting research and inventions for commercial profit
During the Reformation period, universities became more independent of
the Catholic Church, though not of religious control. It was Henry
II's fight with Thomas Becket over church control of civil
institutions that brought English scholars home from Paris and led to
the formation of Cambridge and Oxford.
German universities also developed and held an academic influence that
was so strong that many American Ph.D. candidates went to study in
Germany until the late 1800s. The concept of academic freedom
developed during this period, as the scientific method of testing
hypotheses became accepted. Much of the pressure to change came from
scholars working outside the universities, including John Locke and
Voltaire. In Prussia, Frederick the Great supported academic freedoms,
despite the religious affiliation of the school.
EARLY U.S. HISTORY
All of the early U.S. institutions started out with joint
private-government funding and were religiously-affiliated: Harvard
College (1836); William & Mary (1693); Yale (1701); Princeton (1746)
included. By 1776 there were 10 of them.
The first Ph.D. granted in the U.S. came about because Increase
Mather, president of Harvard College and part of the famous Calvinist
family, could not have obtained his doctorate legally despite a career
with 450 publications. Oxford and Cambridge at that time were legally
required to issued a Ph.D. only to members of the Church of England.
So, he became Dr. Increase Mather when the two other faculty of
Harvard voted him an honorary degree on Sept. 5, 1692.
Increase Mather's doctorate degree honorary:
"Honoris Causa" (1996)
American colleges followed the European pattern of issuing a
bachelor's degree, but PhD studies were pursued overseas, particularly
in Germany because of English requirements to be a member of the
Church of England. The little that the system of higher education had
changed over 5 centuries is shown in the Yale curriculum for 1824,
spelled out in an article in the Institute of Higher Education
Freshmen : algebra, geography and grammar
Sophomores geometry, trigonometry and rhetoric
Juniors: natural philosophy, astronomy and history
Seniors: moral philosophy, natural theology, evidence of Christianity,
rhetoric, logic, chemistry, geology, natural philosophy
The Yale curriculum was virtually identical to that of a medieval
university. "The Yale Report of 1828" supports it with arguments that
a particular theory of mind was being developed exclusively for
"The Development and Scope of Higher Education in the U.S." (February,
It wasn't until 1861 at Yale that the first American Ph.D. degrees
were granted but even then it was a very limited practice because
there were no standard doctoral programs as yet.
THE 'AGE OF THE UNIVERSITY'
It took what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "age of the
university" to develop Ph.D. programs in the U.S. Suddenly several
things were happening at once.
Universities were being secularized, starting with the election of a
chemist to head Harvard in 1869. The trend would continue during the
rapid development of modern universities, with Yale finally electing a
lay president in 1899 and Princeton electing its first lay president
in 1902 (Woodrow Wilson, who was then professor of political science.)
Massive funding from industrialists also poured into American
universities: Johns Hopkins was endowed in 1867 with $3.4 million;
Stanford in 1891 with $20 million; and John D. Rockefeller endowed the
University of Chicago with $30 million in the same year.
Third, technical programs were mushrooming with the creation of Land
Grant colleges by the Morrill Act of 1862 and funding of dozens of
schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins.
It was the latter that developed the first standardized Ph.D. program
in 1876, though others quickly followed.
The Ph.D. programs were necessary to train university-level teachers
for a burgeoning college population. College enrollments were 67,350
in 1870, then grew to 156,756 in 1890. by 1910 attendance had more
than doubled to 355,215. Graduate-level programs had 198 students in
the U.S. in 1872. By 1897 it was 4,392 and by 1926 it was 32,500.
Much of the debate has grown out of this period, first because of the
intent of original American Ph.D. programs to produce college-level
instructors. Second, because coursework was becoming more specialized
and technical, debate has raged over the role of research for the
Ph.D. (Just one of dozens of debates on specialization and
professional education as well.) Third, rapid growth in
university-level education led to production of more Ph.D.s than the
schools themselves could absorb.
EARLY 20TH CENTURY ISSUES
Starting around 1900 you'll find many systematic critiques of Ph.D.
education and it standards, particularly from foundations.
One of the first was the Flexner Report, done on the 400 medical
colleges in the U.S. and Canada. It recommends bringing medical
education under the control of universities with teaching hospitals
and taking it out of the hands of stand-alone schools of medicine. It
is probably the first report tying the Ph.D. to technical professional
The Carnegie Foundation
"Medical Education in the U.S. and Canada" (1910)
By 1940, the Ph.D. was a minimum of 2 years of study beyond the
master's degree (though it often stretched to 4 years). According to
the Encyclopedia Britannica, "an investigation" in the area of study;
a written dissertation; an exam in at least one area of study (often
two); and knowledge of either French or German (often Latin as well)
are all required by American universities.
One of the most-recent examinations of Ph.D. programs has been done
with funding from the Pew Charitable Trust. In 2000, the University
of Washington conducted a study to interview all those involved in
Ph.D. education, from students to employers.
The report notes what many others have: that the Ph.D., originally
intended as the necessary credential for teaching at universities, has
been over-supplied. The oversupply would have been worse, but for
industrial demand for highly-trained people and research.
Authors Jody Nyquist and Bettina Woodford note that doctoral education
successfully prepares Ph.D.s to do quality research but that there is
disagreement whether that alone is sufficient preparation. Almost all
of those interviewed felt that Ph.D. programs were too narrowly
focused and that more interdisciplinary work should be done. They are
also critical of use of the Carnegie Classification System and
National Research Council ratings, arguing that they over-promote
University of Washington
"Re-envisioning the Ph.D." (2000)
The University of Washington and Pew Trust continue to support the
research and discussion of issues:
"Re-envisioning the Ph.D." Home Page
As indicated above, American foundations have been active in looking
at issues of higher education; so each of their web pages provides
good ways to assemble support for your argument.
The Carnegie Foundation pioneered research into issues of higher
education, particularly pertaining to the professions. The website is
a rich resource and this recent book seems to focus on your interests:
"Ethics of Inquiry, Issues in the Scholarship of Teaching and
Learning," Pat Hutchings, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
You can get a feel for Hutchings conclusions by seeing this summary:
"Approaching the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning" (undated)
Higher-ed.org serves as a hub for issues in university-level education
and one page is especially good for historical background:
"History and Archival Resources on Higher Education"
The University of Washington site has a very good bibliography on
issues surrounding Ph.D. education:
"Re-envisioning Project Resources" (2002)
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is also using Pew
Trust funding to test concepts in Ph.D. education:
"Responsive Ph.D." (2002)
This article on academic degrees argues strongly that Ph.D.s have
become mixed up with professional degrees. It's interesting and seems
to be generally accurate, though it's missing footnotes for sources:
Several books stand out in chronicling changes in the Ph.D. programs
"American Higher Education: A Documentary History," Richard Hofstadter
& Wilson Smith, University of Chicago Press, 1961.
"Development of Academic Freedom in the U.S." Richard Hofstadter &
Walter P. Metzger, Columbia University Press, 1955
Richard Hofstadter wrote widely about topics of higher education and
you may find several of his other books to be useful.
"Higher Education in the U.S.: An Encyclopedia" and its article on
"Doctoral Degree" by James Soto Antony, ABC-CLIO Publishers, 2002
"The Founding of Harvard College," Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard
University Press, 1935 (but available in reprint)
"The Constitution of the University of Cambridge," John Kirkland,
Cambridge: Hilliard & Metcalf, 1812
And the "Study of Graduate Schools of America," R.M. Hughes, 1925, is
available at many university libraries and is also recommended,
according to Diane Rogers, project manager at the UW Envision program.
Google search strategy:
This first search strategy will turn up everything you want to know
about current standards for a doctorate in molecular biology (as an
"Ph.D." + standards + biology
To get background information on the HISTORY of Ph.D. programs, you
should avoid the following type of search, as it will yield lots on
Ph.D. programs in the subject of history:
"Ph.D." + standards + history
Searches are better structured like the following:
"history of Ph.D." + "Harvard University"
"history of the Ph.D."
"higher education" + history
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