I was sharing the regional Toastmaster’s International podium with a fine, enthusiastic speaker.
He was fun, his stories were crisp, and the audience loved him.
So, when one of my clients asked if I knew a speaker they could hire for an annual sales meeting in Palm Springs, I mentioned this guy. But as I did, I felt just a little uneasy about recommending him, so I decided to perform a little due diligence by researching his credentials.
What really stood out for me was the fact that he called himself “Doctor.” In itself, this is no big deal, as my trade name is Dr. Gary S. Goodman, so who am I to take issue with this?
If you have a Ph.D. or an M.D. or other “doctoral” credentials, you’ve earned the right to use them, especially in professional settings. Dr. Robert Schuller, for example, earned his degree in ministerial studies, so he is entitled to use it, and of course, he does.
But I felt the speaker I was recommending wasn’t the real deal. So, I called him and asked where, when and in what subject area he earned his doctorate, and he mentioned a place I had never heard of before.
I contacted the research librarian at USC, where I earned my Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication, and I asked him to look into this obscure school. After a few hours, he phoned back and said, flatly: “It’s a degree mill!”
In effect, you buy your degree for so many thousands of dollars, possibly attend a class for a few days here and there, and then write a thesis or dissertation that is rubber stamped and filed away, or conveniently misfiled, as the case may be.
So, this speaker was a phony, at least from an educational vantage point. But what were the clues that made me suspect this? There were at least five:
(1) He seldom quoted respected authorities in his “field.” If you have studied in a rigorous academic program, you are steeped in a tradition and you “stand on the shoulders” of others who came before you. I refer, for example, to Peter F. Drucker on many occasions in speeches and in print because I studied directly with the management guru for two and a half years, emerging with an MBA for my efforts. Moreover, I was his informal chauffeur on Saturdays when I used to shuttle him from class back to his house, about a mile from the Claremont University campus, which named their Management school in his honor.
(2) When he mentioned research, he was sloppy and over-generalized the scope of its findings. Give a hammer to a phony Ph.D. and he’ll treat everything he sees as if it is a nail. Trained minds don’t do this.
(3) His grammar and syntax were far from flawless. Clear expression is one of the marks of a scholar, and someone who makes obvious grammatical errors, that the trained academic ear will detect, will either be corrected or never reach doctoral status.
(4) His biography should have shown about three years invested in a Ph.D. program, but his was silent with regard to where and how long he studied. Most doctors are proud of the institutions that spawned them. Remember, I had to ask him where he went.
(5) If someone’s ideas seem totally unoriginal, reflecting mere borrowings from others, this person has probably never been required to think deeply for himself and to create new insights and techniques. The mark of a true Ph.D. is originality in thinking. It is someone who was compelled under intense academic scrutiny to come up with something new, fresh, and significant, and then to defend the significance of that contribution.
So, what did I do?
I contacted my client, who had reviewed the speaker’s demonstration audio, and wanted to hire him. I said, “This guy is a good presenter, but he isn’t what most people would consider a genuine Ph.D.–Does this bother you?”
“No, I’m okay with it,” the sales manager replied.
The meeting came off without a hitch, the speaker was a hit, and everybody was happy.
I suggested to this guy that he eliminate his doctoral references, that some day they would probably embarrass him, and that his career didn’t require them.
Soon after that, he stopped using “Doctor.”
And then he went on to become a best-selling author and a celebrity, demonstrating that he really didn’t need this extra credential.