Real test starts after PhD

March 6, 2014

The feature “Fit to supervise?” (20 February) suggests that poor supervision is to blame for “substandard doctoral theses”. But poor theses are produced by poor students. No degree of expert supervision will change that. When students fail at the undergraduate or master’s level, we do not blame this on their lecturers. Why should it change at the doctoral level?

I have examined more than 100 doctoral theses at more than 40 universities around the world, including many in the UK. I examine about a dozen every year. My encounters with other examiners suggest that the views David Alexander and Ian Davis express in the article are extreme and rather marginal.

Most doctoral theses are of quite acceptable quality precisely because supervisors have had to authorise the defence. Alexander and Davis either have had bad luck in the theses they have examined or they are far too demanding.

If the subject is well chosen, and meets the fundamental requirement of originality, the student ought to know more than the supervisor about the topic within a few months. The suggestion that a research student should not be accepted until “there are acknowledged, internationally recognised experts” on the staff smacks of elitism. Reading between the lines, I suppose it means that doctoral studies should be reserved for Russell Group universities. Yet years of examining theses at all types of universities in the UK have shown me that the playing field gets very level with doctoral research. I’ve seen brilliant theses at post-1992 universities and very mediocre efforts at Oxbridge.

Examiners are not asked to give a grade, only to decide whether a thesis is “good enough”. It almost invariably is. The viva voce examination should be collegial and even joyous, as we welcome new members to the academy, not unnecessarily unpleasant and tinged with notes of arrogance and condescension from frustrated examiners who believe they are sitting on the Nobel prize committee.

At all stages in academic life we find “substandard” scholars who have slipped through. It is no different with the doctoral examination. But today, a doctoral graduate faces huge challenges. The doctoral examination pales against such tests as competing for a junior lecturer position, publishing articles in a four-star journal and preparing a credible REF entry. That’s where the real “sink or swim” test applies.

William Schabas
Professor of international law
Middlesex University London

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