Impact Blog

PhDs: longer-lasting than the business cycle

May 2021
Professor Simon Handley
Pro Vice-Chancellor, Higher Degree Research Training & Partnerships


These are strange times for the sector and many Universities are in the process of re-imagining what Higher Education will look like in the future. The federal government has not been shy in voicing its opinions, aligning its aspirations for Higher Education with broader objectives linked to a growth in commercialisation and innovation, STEM expertise, graduate employability and economic growth. Whilst these objectives are undoubtedly important, too much emphasis on outcomes ignores the intrinsic value of a University. A University is not just a means to an end; a purpose defined by the delivery of outcomes that have value in the present, but with no intrinsic importance independent of the objectives it delivers. Instead, the value of a University lies in engendering, developing and supporting reason, inquiry and open debate, where scholars and students are free to speculate and explore ideas and thoughts independent of application, opinion or direction.

My PhD topic was on human judgment, principally focused on how people understand and reason with logical arguments containing the word, ‘or’. I was interested in the psychological equivalence between ‘or’ and ‘and’ and whether this aligned with De-Morgans’s law, a logical rule that is a key component of natural deduction systems. My motivation was to use this approach as a means of testing alternative theories of how we reason. My own research and that of my students is unapologetically theoretical. We seek to understand how people think and which theoretical models are best positioned to explain the empirical data. My work is basic research, the sort of activity that is uniquely supported by a University system that values discovery in its own right through its contribution to advancing knowledge and understanding. Whilst the future for Universities will undoubtedly involve a renewed focus on innovation and industry engagement that will extend to research degrees, a PhD will continue to be judged solely on the unique contribution it makes to our understanding of the world. It is a privilege to be able to support candidates in these endeavours and it requires no apology.


Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

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