Leader: British doctorates in the dock

The three-year limit on PhDs is creating conflict: are they for learning research skills or for making advances in the field?

December 4, 2008

When "something seriously weird is happening to the doctorates in this country, but no one talks about it", as one professor put it recently, it is perhaps time to sit up and take notice.

It is widely agreed that the process of PhD study has been streamlined. The ridiculously vague or overambitious topics, the endlessly deferred completion dates, the students left entirely without support, are largely things of the past. Those with doctorates are now much more aware of the transferable skills they have acquired - and how they can market them to employers within and outside academia.

What is far more disputed is what has happened to the content and value of today's British PhD - and indeed what the PhD is for.

Are PhDs meant to teach people research skills or are they meant to be significant pieces of research? Do they give people time to be intellectually ambitious by, for example, mastering a foreign language and working for months in a distant archive? Or should they merely represent "a reasonable output for three years' work"? This may ensure high completion rates, but doesn't it often amount to a form of dumbing down?

When the PhD is often the prerequisite for an academic career, and about 50 per cent of all PhDs stay on in higher education, this adds up to a huge problem for the UK. As Peter Barry wrote in our Passion for Teaching series last week, it is an "apprenticeship; when it is successfully concluded, candidates rightly assume they must be doing what the profession requires".

If the academy is indeed dumbing down (and the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee inquiry into standards will soon, hopefully, provide some answers), the PhD is an important point in the circle. If students are completing undergraduate degrees at a lower standard than ever before, then for those who go on to further study the road of travel to a doctorate is a longer one. This puts more strain on supervisors, and produces a weaker PhD at the end of the process, who then goes on to teach undergraduates, content with the current state of affairs because they know no better.

Unless they try to get a job abroad, of course. Holders of UK doctorates are now looking uncompetitive in America and other international markets.

The Bologna Process has an important role to play in this respect, too. "(Looking from the outside), people question whether a UK PhD is as vigorous," Chris Park, director of Lancaster University's Graduate School, who is on partial secondment to the Higher Education Academy, told Times Higher Education in advance of a recent conference, "2020 Vision - The Changing UK Doctorate".

"If the UK is seen to be having programmes that don't fit Bologna ... then the value of an award is diminished."

Implementing the "spirit" of the agreement would make PhDs four years instead of three and students would no longer be allowed to move straight from an undergraduate degree to a PhD without doing a masters first.

If "something seriously weird" is happening and the UK PhD is no longer as robust as it once was (important when one considers that there has been a notable increase in numbers of international PhD students in the past decade), and there is controversy over what it is even for, we should all be talking about it now before there is nothing left to say.

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