What is the point of a PhD? Is it a step towards an academic career, or simply a contribution to knowledge, asks Alan Macmillan. Social science PhDs need a clearer purpose. At the demand of the Economic and Social Research Council we are bolting new procedures on to the traditional structure of the PhD, but we are not debating the need for these procedures or how to integrate them into existing practices. Academics ought to be doing more to rethink the point of the PhD and to set the agenda for change themselves.
Research students already face considerable uncertainty. Lecturers anxiously contemplating Teaching Quality Assessments and Research Selectivity Exercises may envy graduate students who enjoy the apparent luxury of a three-year research project free from the stresses and strains of contemporary academic life. But, in the social sciences at least, they are under more pressure than ever. Much of this stems from the diversity of purposes which the PhD degree has grown to serve.
The first view of the PhD is the one implied by the increasingly influential Economic and Social Research Council. For the ESRC, the purpose of a PhD is to provide general research training to equip students for a variety of careers. Submitting a thesis, within a maximum of four years, is not an end in itself but evidence that students have completed their research training - regardless of whether a degree is awarded. Awarding a degree is a matter for the student's institution to decide, and not a concern of the ESRC. It is poor submission rates rather than poor pass rates that make the council blacklist a department, debarring students from holding awards there.
The second view of a PhD is the traditional academic one: it is a 100,000-word thesis constituting a substantial and original contribution to knowledge. Here the PhD is an end in itself, and emphasis is placed on the qualities and abilities already possessed by the student.
This difference is illustrated by the way in which the ESRC has recently changed the application procedure for its postgraduate research awards. In the 1980s it assessed students on their personal record of achievement, their references, and their research proposal. Now, these count for far less than the quality of facilities, training and supervision that the host department can supply.
According to a third view, the PhD is meant to provide the first step on the path to an academic career. Students must make themselves attractive if they are seeking jobs in good research departments. They must quickly obtain doctorates - but they must also gain teaching experience and demonstrate research potential by delivering conference papers and publishing journal articles.
Students often use PhDs for a fourth purpose: to indulge a lifelong curiosity in a subject, and/or to enjoy a student lifestyle for a while longer.
In many respects, then, the PhD has become an ideal preparation for an academic career because graduate students learn to teach, research and write under time and financial pressures.
But this is not the result of conscious design. Indeed, little about the PhD is. The different purposes which it serves have evolved independently.
In some ways the different purposes are compatible. Though it is frustrating for first-year students to spend up to 60 per cent of their time on research training, knowing that much of it is irrelevant to their thesis topics, training is leading to higher submission rates.
Better trained students will probably complete their research faster and be attractive to a wide range of professions. Certainly the old tradition of offering no training and often lax supervision, and the maxim that those who need supervisors should not be doing PhDs, look ineffectual by comparison.
But there are plenty of incompatibilities. Is a substantial and original thesis still a reasonable expectation for people at the beginning of their careers? Will the pressures of time and research training lead students to take on less ambitious theses because they appear in advance to be "do-able" in three to four years? Will students pursue topics which they think they can publish on rather than those that indulge their curiosity? Will the important take second place to the fashionable?
Can you publish material while still getting on with the PhD, and vice versa? Writing articles and delivering papers can help order your thoughts and yield feedback, but can also divert attention and energy from the thesis. Teaching similarly threatens research progress. The ESRC and responsible departments limit the time students may spend teaching, and irresponsible departments will in the long run suffer if their submission rates fall because students are overworked. While teaching can develop skills useful for research and writing, it still absorbs time and, more significantly, energy.
It is time to reconsider what purpose the PhD degree ought to serve, and therefore what form it should take. If it is to provide general training, should we downgrade the importance, and perhaps the length, of the thesis? If it is an induction into academic life, should there be a move to include publications in the PhD, as many have argued? If the point is to make a contribution to knowledge, might journal articles be a more effective vehicle than the thesis, an unwieldy instrument which no publisher will touch without substantial revision?
Graduate students endure insecure existences. Bright people with good first and masters degrees, they still need to prove themselves if they are to embark on academic careers. Most go through periods of soul-searching, asking themselves what the point of doing a PhD is. No doubt it was ever thus. But in the mid-1990s, the point of the PhD is less clear than ever, and students are pulled in different directions. They surely deserve a little more certainty.
Alan Macmillan is a PhD student in the department of international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.