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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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PhDs, a Taxonomy
by Lynn Nayus, C. Lassie Fickashun and Phae Lum

Lay theories and informal systems of categorization of those who pursue doctorates abound. The most basic of these “folk” taxonomies would fall upon the “Book Larnin'” (BL) vs. “Street Smart” (SS) (if the context is urban) or the BL vs. “commonsense” (CS) (if the context is rural) axis. For purposes of future discussion, we might call this Axis 1, one more derived from informal observation, class distinction, and/or “town vs. gown” dichotomies.

Splatter and Frump (1956) provide, perhaps, the definitive, and now deservedly classic, look at Axis 1 taxonomies, their geographical dispersion, and their prevalence in popular culture. While this investigator feels no obligation to recreate their work, it has been noted by Simon (1987) and Sez (1994) that, with the current abundance of graduate programs and the proliferation of people possessing doctorates, particularly in the period after Splatter and Frump's work, there is the possibility for both a more formal and, perhaps, more nuanced look at the well-degreed among us.

The work noted in this paper, following both field studies in biology and approval of Purewater University's Institutional Review Board, took place during academic periods between 2009 and 2012. The school year being the active time for the PhD, sample individuals were assumed to be not only more available for study but also in their “normal,” non-hibernating state. During this time, PhDs are also assumed more likely to be at the height of their display behavior, and in what might otherwise be deemed both vigor and health.

While tracking and prior to biometrical measurement, the teaching schedule of each PhD sampled was carefully recorded, so that the subject could be captured, screened, sexed (to the degree possible), and field of study determined before being released with the least amount of academic disruption.

While initial investigations began at Purewater University, grant funding allowed studies to be conducted at the University of Outer Iowa, Dissention College of Minneola, and Timbaland University in Emcee, Oregon.


As previously noted, each PhD subject was tracked with the help of local guides hired from the naturally occurring population of students in and around the PhDs' ecological niche. This allowed the PhD to be quietly sedated with a tranquilizing dart loaded with a custom mixture of Chardonnay, PBR, and single-malt scotch. Once subdued, the PhDs were tagged with a harmless, colorful tracking device so that subsequent movements could be recorded. Each subject was then measured and weighed. Presence of display clothing, facial hair, coiffure, and presence or absence of corrective lenses noted. Upon waking, PhDs were transported to a nearby public house or tavern frequented by other academics, in order to avoid confusion. They were then supplied with a beverage of choice fortified with a measure of sodium pentothal appropriate for the PhD's weight and apparent gender.

At this point, the interview portion of the study was conducted, yielding the qualitative data comprising the bulk of taxonomy below. Quantitative results are to be published separately.

Because many of the PhDs in question were themselves researchers, individual questions had to be masked so as not to blow the investigator's “cover” and thereby skew the results. However, the questions were designed to mirror the following:

• Why did you pursue a PhD?
• What has it yielded in relation to your life/life plans?
• What do you think of students?
• What do you think of your field of study?
• If you had not pursued a PhD, what would you be doing instead?

Expert coders (Fickashun and Lum) observed each conversation, recorded responses, and kept the interviewer on track until the interview was completed. Each PhD was then released back into her natural habitat. While tracking data are still being gathered, it is not believed that the biometric or interview portion of the study, or the tracking itself, have significantly impacted the PhDs' subsequent behavior.

Biometric data have been excluded from this report except where relevant to qualitative descriptions, but will be completely reported with the quantitative report.

It should be kept in mind that this taxonomy is initial and somewhat speculative, but will be, hopefully, useful as a platform for future inquiries.

Type 1: The Pure PhD

This type is characterized by a seemingly genuine interest in his field of study and a certain inevitability of life course. It is difficult for Type 1 individuals to come up with what they might be doing had they not pursued a PhD. While this type varies somewhat--from the traditionally “tweedy” looks to more modern/contemporary display clothing--they all seem to take a somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward such lesser concerns as personal appearance.

Ignorance and unconcern for facts outside of the Type 1's field of study are common, reinforcing the stereotype of the “absentminded professor.”

It is unclear if Type 1s are able to exist outside of the context at all, though there is historical evidence of this type in roles as varied as patent office clerks and bank tellers. Those unlucky enough to not fully self-actualize along this axis (failed Type 1s) glut geekdom. This failure might be one of mastery: geeks tend to know a lot about their fields of interest (Reck, 2001), but do not necessarily understand them conceptually. The Type 1 does; however, she may not be aware of the extra-theoretical bases upon which her field of study rests, existing as she does entirely “inside” the field itself and having little frame of reference beyond it.

Future genetic testing might reveal a relationship between the Type 1 PhD, the geek, and the wonk. The latter seems to be nearly as singularly focused on a particular field as the “Pure” PhD, but manages to exist mainly outside of academe. While beyond the scope of this study, the wonk's narrow focus can mean serious disruption when in positions of authority.

Type 1s tend to relate well to other Type 1s. They are sometimes only marginally aware there are students in their classes and that those students might have other interests than the Type 1's field of study, specialty, or even sub-specialty. Type 1s are generally beloved by budding Type 1s in their field, but are often considered inscrutable or even impossible by other students, non-Type 1 colleagues, administrators, spouses, and so forth.

Type 2: Academe as Lifestyle Choice

For as much as the Type 1 finds it hard to imagine herself outside the academic framework, the Type 1's intense focus on her field sometimes causes her to push back against or be at odds with the requirements of academic life, such as teaching schedules, administrative duties, office hours, and so forth.

This is not true of the Type 2. One of the first of many PhDs for whom the pursuit of a doctorate is a means to an end, Type 2s seem to genuinely love being academics and being seen as academics, a trait shared with the “Prestige PhD,” or Type 3, below. The Type 2 tends to not merely thrive while serving on committees, but has been known to organize them, and is often quick to abandon research in favor of administration or pedagogical pursuits.

Type 2 PhDs accept as a matter of course the requirements of tenure and the classifications and protocols of academe. Type 2s are sometimes seen to display apparently genuine “school pride.”

Generally, the Type 2 is observed in academic dress: display clothing falls along lines of corduroy and tweed, with driving caps bedecking men and short bobs for women. Female Type 2s tend to drive Toyota Corollas and Honda Accords, with the males preferring vintage 2-place British convertibles. Loafers abound. Jackets with elbow patches are not unknown. Type 2s have been observed to both write and enforce faculty dress codes.

Type 2s profess both a love for the principles of higher education (from self-improvement to the practical advances of science, technology and culture) and, perhaps because of this, to complain endlessly about the lack of preparation/engagement/concern of the students the encounter. This tendency may press Type 2s even more certainly into administrative tracks, toward program, policy, and pedagogy, toward assessment and development, and away from actually having to deal with the frightened and obnoxious young scholars flooding the labs and the lecture halls every fall.

For as dedicated as the Type 2 may appear, her actual field of study is of secondary concern, generally chosen because she was good at it as a student, thereby seeing it as an avenue through which her lifestyle may be pursued. This is certainly a PhD type for whom complete understanding of a field is unnecessary, though the Type 2 needs to know it well enough to achieve her academic ends.

The Type 2, as may surprise no one, is the sort of academic most prone to heavy drinking.

While it is rare to encounter Type 2s outside the academy (since their identity is so closely tied to it), they occasionally find their way into think-tanks, where their dogmatism is, somewhat ironically, most likely to influence society at large.

Type 3: The Prestige PhD

The Type 3 is, unfortunately, an achiever. Lionized by our society as a success story, the Prestige PhD is even less driven by a love for his field than the Type 2. The Type 3, rather, pursues a terminal degree because he has something to prove--to himself, to his family, to a secondary-school teacher who doubted his abilities. Because the Type 3 is driven in this way, he is certain to use hard work to overcome any deficiency of intellect or talent. This quality, while admirable, can also be noisome to Type 1s, who tire of Type 3 students' frequent off-base questions and obsessions with extra credit and grading curves.

Type 3s view everything as a competition they must win and will often choose a field of study not because of their own inherent interest in it but because it seems easy to dominate. Once on the other side of the desk, Type 3s will attempt to drive students as hard as they have driven themselves, leading students, inevitably, to burn-out and cheat. This leads Type 3 professors to create many and often arbitrary rules. These are viewed as students as “hoops” they have to jump through, but as Type 3 professors as ways for students to “prove” their “dedication.”There is little more Byzantine than the syllabus of a Type 3.

The Type 3 is most likely to create “weed out” classes to rid the college or university of “weaker” students and to show obsessions with student “performance.” While a Type 1 may simply ignore students who don't show much promise, the Type 3 will view it as his duty to punish and destroy them, and the presence of bad students besmirch, in the mind of the Type 3, all that he has accomplished.

Driven by pride, the Type 3 will schmooze his way onto research teams and into the authorship of as many papers as possible. Type 3s will often take the claims of competing researchers or competing theories as personal attacks.

The Type 3 will accept committee or administrative appointments not out of a sense of obligation, but in order to “leave her stamp” on the committee or the college. This can lead to conflicts with a closely related type, the Type 4, or PhD as Petty Tyrant.

The Type 3 often insists on being called “doctor,” even by casual acquaintances or those outside academe (especially them). Type 3s display clothing of every academic stripe, sometimes trying to take on the disheveled appearance of the Type 1 (whom they secretly admire), but generally falling within the spectrum of those around them. Occasionally, a Type 3 will try to “keep it real” by studiously under-dressing, both to show those around him that he has “come from nothing,” and, more important, to remind himself.


Type 4: The PhD as Petty Tyrant

The Type 4 has the most invested in the PhD as a means to an end. Beyond trying to prove something like the Type 3, the Type 4 must also lord it over everybody else. While the Type 3 may want to “put his stamp” on a department through an administrative appointment, the Type 4 will attempt to recreate the department in her own image.

While the Type 3 seems overly concerned with student “performance,” the Type 4 seems overly concerned with faculty performance, metrics generally, and with competing with other colleges and universities. Rather than the “school pride” evidenced by the Type 2, the Type 4 shows a kind of strategic savvy that can be understandably frightening to Types 1 and 2, and is often viewed as threatening to the competitive opportunism of Type 3.

Type 4s' obsession with command and control, and their use of metrics and policy towards those ends, make them popular choices for academic deans in the current era, in which hierarchical “business” oriented practices are being imposed upon academe by rich, right-wing donors, trend-pushers, and legislators.

The relationship of the Type 4 to his chosen field of study is generally tenuous, at best, and is frequently severed as soon as an administrative track is secured. And while the Type 4 may most directly clash with the Type 3, a clever Type 4 will enlist the Type 3's native competitiveness in order to enforce her mandates. The relationship between Type 4s and Type 2s varies considerably, as many Type 2s view Type 4s' motives as impure. But for those Type 2s whose ideas about academic principles are more rule-bound--and for business and economics faculty who share the Type 4 worldview--the Type 2 is often the means through which Type 4s come to dominate.

Type 4s tend to throw around terms like “excellence” and “strategic plan,” seem concerned with the institution's “brand” and love to impose hiring bans just as new dorms with climbing walls pop up around campus. Type 4s stock the org chart with non-academics, often placing them in powerful positions: Vice-Presidents, chief officers, and deans of things those who teach didn't know the university even had. This serves to distance the Type 4 from academics and teaching just as he demands more and more “excellence” while providing less and less salary, support, and secure, full-time employment. Most important to the Type 4, it serves to consolidate his power and make traditional forms of faculty governance moot.

The Type 4 views students as simply another variable to be manipulated through measurable progress towards goals--all the goals being the Type 4's own, of course. The student as an individual disappears into spreadsheets about enrollment numbers, credit-hour loads, and percentages of degrees completed within the expected 4-year span. The Type 4 rarely allows any direct student contact, and when she does, scenes of deep awkwardness ensue.

Type 4s, while most publicly clashing with unwooed Type 3s and idealistic Type 2s, is actually most at odds with Type 1s, who appear to Type 4s to simply occupy a different world. Type 1s are allowed to exist in the universe of the Type 4 as a part of the university's strategic plan, but, unless deeply involved in marketable, revenue-positive STEM activities, are not likely to be supported. Type 4s are far too invested in maintaining power to want to directly support Type 1s whose behavior may be unpredictable or whose research may spectacularly fail. So, Type 4s institute policies that force Type 1s to secure funding through government or private sector grants, or, better yet, through partnerships with industry. The latter are not merely safer for the Type 4, but further consolidate his power by moving funding away from the university's structure and assuring funder-expected outcomes.

Life under a Type 4 administrative regime forces Type 1 researchers to rely on Type 2s to organize and Type 3s to compete. This situation, instead of leading to productive alliances, merely waters down the potential of Type 1s to surpass the existing boundaries of their fields.

Type 4s are distinguished by never looking like academics, preferring blue blazers, power-pantsuits, and anything Brooks Brothers.

Outside academe, Type 4s gravitate toward politics and business administration (for fairly obvious reasons) with failed Type 4s frequently devolving into criminality and abuse.



While a start at a taxonomy of PhDs, it is probable future studies will further refine these categories and expand them. It has already been suggested that a little known and difficult to detect Type 5 exists. Closely related to the Type 2, the theoretical Type 5 would be labeled “PhD by Default,” and be comprised of those who stuck around academe not out of a genuine liking for the academic lifestyle but simply to avoid the “real world.” Often highly talented but unmotivated, the Type 5, if proven, would be made up of people who entered academia and just sort of never left, being realistic but not excited about their abilities and opportunities outside of academe.

Much work, however, needs to be done in the ever-expanding realm of adjuncts and those with PhDs who have given up on academe entirely in order to pursue other means of survival such as micro-brewing, organic farming, busking, and stand-up comedy.

These studies would require, however, completely different research methodology, as adjuncts are unlikely to be encountered in an office and most likely to be found in their cars traveling campus-to-campus, therefore making tranquilization a dangerous proposition. The others listed would have to be positively identified as PhDs before being darted, measured, and tagged.



Reck, T.M. Life amongst the numismatists: the depth of comprehension of theoretical and meta-theoretical concepts and concerns among coin collectors worldwide, a survey. Social Sciences in Dispute, 92, 555-568.

Splatter, G. and Frump, Q. (1956). Doctors Aweigh: a Comprehensive Study of the Folk Taxonomies and Geographical Descriptions of “Book Larnin." Boston: Highfalutin' Press

Sez, I. (1994). PhD programs: very abundant. Journal of Academic Call and Response, 55, 932-997.

Simon, L.T.D. (1987). PhD programs: how abundant? Journal of Academic Self-Reflection, 89, 230-245.