End doctoral dog's breakfast

January 10, 2003

It's time to rethink the inconsistent, muddled criteria by which PhDs are awarded, says Susan Bassnett

Stories abound about the future of doctoral research in universities. Will some institutions shift to focus on undergraduate teaching, with a select group of universities hiving off the postgraduate population? As someone who works in a postgraduate centre, I have a keen interest in such questions. But if there are to be big changes, more thought should be given to the criteria and processes by which PhDs are awarded. What we have at the moment, at least in the humanities, is something of a dog's breakfast.

Once upon a time, when small numbers pursued doctoral study, the ground rules were fairly clear: originality was essential, and the finished product had to be of publishable quality. Vestiges of those criteria remain in the regulations of some institutions, but as numbers have expanded, the rules have altered. These days, some students apply for PhDs without even having a topic in mind, let alone an original one. I regularly receive letters from well-meaning young people with funding assured who ask for advice on what they should do for their PhD. The idea of pursuing a line of original research does not even occur to them.

Many postgraduate students have no idea how to embark on research, how to use archival materials or how to structure an argument. Some universities provide extra training and courses on basic research methods, but often to little effect. The role of the supervisor is tricky, too: some universities provide supervisor training, some supervisors are excellent, some are unreliable, some welcome research students, others see them as a nuisance.

In the past year, I have examined half a dozen PhDs. It is fascinating and not a little depressing to observe the different behaviour of examiners and supervisors, and the criteria for the award of PhDs. Forget consistency: in some places, a viva is properly conducted with a chair who acts in a neutral capacity and puts the candidate at ease. In others, it is held behind closed doors and examiners can behave as they like.

Criteria for referrals vary, too. In some cases, examiners can award a degree "subject to minor corrections". Others have something called "major corrections", which falls short of what I have always understood as a referral. This means that a thesis can be sent back for a few months for corrections, thereby ensuring that nobody loses face because it is not called a referral, though in effect that is what it is. In universities that do not have this get-out clause, referral is the only option.

Some universities have word limits, others do not. Some have rules about presentation, others do not. Some pay examiners appallingly (£105 for at least three full days' work, a written report and a viva in a university at the opposite end of the country) but then rely on the examiner to save the situation if supervisory standards are low. It is not a dignified situation, and it needs rethinking.

What should we do? Learn from the US model for a start. Students should follow courses for a year then formulate a proper doctoral research proposal and write a shorter but better thesis. Funding criteria should be adjusted accordingly. Supervisors should be trained, and universities should look as closely at their examining criteria as they do for undergraduate degrees. The viva should be chaired by a senior academic who is not the supervisor and be open to observers should the student so wish it.

Heaven forbid that we should establish yet another central body to police our postgraduate system, but there really should be more consistency across the system. I have seen PhDs awarded in some universities that would have not made the grade in others, and that should not happen. I have seen brilliant theses by overseas students, and theses so poor that you sense that the institution was blinded by lucre. We need changes to ensure that a UK PhD is a quality degree worth having.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.

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