Metric misses the full picture of PhD study (1 of 3)

May 12, 2011

Once again the crude metric of a PhD "completion rate" is used to assess quality ("Poor English a key diagnosis for failure to make PhD grade", 5 May).

Blinkered uniformity is often sought for administrative convenience at the expense of the diversity in disciplines, institutions and intentions. People pursue, and choose to supervise, PhDs for a range of motives - not merely the production of some standardised measured "output".

To apply a rationale that says only those with certain methodological skills who address topics in conventional, routinised ways to some necessarily subjective "standard" are worthy of a PhD is stultifying and inhibitive of innovative ideas and approaches. For example, the attempt to "compare" a PhD in the field of healthcare with one in music is futile. Similarly, standardising completion times assumes uniformity in individuals' entry levels, skills, potential and rates of progress.

Dictating optimal completion times conflicts with the inevitable marketisation of higher education and the necessity of institutional competition.

Diversity in approach, support systems and methods can help sustain a competitive market. Artificial standardisation produces "imperfect competition". High-quality candidates may be attracted to presumed high-quality institutions, but there is no guarantee that they will get "better" supervision than they could receive elsewhere. Less highly rated institutions may attract poorer candidates, but the demands made upon supervisors can be much more time-consuming.

Like it or not, the "postgraduate research opportunity" is a marketable service, and a highly complex one. Overseas students can bring in lots of money, but can also make disproportionately more demands on supervisory staff. The only worthy "metric" for such a service must evaluate starting level against outcomes, at the same time as assessing "external pressures" - such as family bereavement or economic exigencies.

Good supervisors recognise such pressures on their students; sadly, the "measuring agencies" rarely do.

Ron Iphofen, Retired director of graduate studies, School of Health Sciences, Bangor University

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