New PhDs losing the plot

June 4, 2015

The feature on a new style for PhD theses struck an uncomfortable note (“Last era’s model”, 21 May). A couple of weeks ago, I examined one such thesis consisting of introduction and conclusions sections separated by four papers, three submitted and one accepted. Each paper had three authors: the student plus two supervisors. So who contributed what? The student presumably did the legwork and the supervisors applied the presentational polish. But pity the poor examiner. Gone was the narrative of a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead, a lot of the necessary detail was lost and there was inevitable duplication between the papers. The thesis was disjointed and, despite the brilliance of the candidate, it caused me much concern.

While in this case there was only one chicken and two hens, imagine a paper from a team that has many chickens and hens contributing. Who gets to use the paper in their thesis?

We have evolved the generally accepted narrative style of the thesis over many years. By all means bind in a published paper to a thesis, but the interesting format discussed in the feature is not a good one.

Bob Adams
Emeritus professor, University of Bristol
Visiting professor, University of Oxford

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