A journey to the PhD hierarchy

October 11, 1996

Alan Thomson's review of the Council for Graduate Education's report, The Award of the Degree of PhD on the Basis of Published Work in the UK, (THES, September ) was accurate on the danger to the quality and standing of higher degrees and the debilitation to the general research base.

Postgraduate diplomas are already awarded to non-graduates and masters degrees to candidates with less knowledge of the primary field than is standard for an undergraduate qualifying in the subject. Even the doctorate has suffered as it is now available in England for coursework plus a thesis not exceeding 30,000 words.

I had hoped that the PhD, at least, had retained its standing. In vain: The UK Council for Graduate Education is indeed espousing a merger of the PhD gained through training and a substantial thesis with one granted on the basis of collected articles and/or other publications. The educational function of graduate awards is thus thoroughly undermined and universities are urged to qualify those they have not taught by means of examiners who are, in the majority, external to the awarding university.

There can be no doubt that there exist able, original and incisive researchers making an active contribution to the research base who, for one reason or another, do not possess the PhD. (The description probably captures a fair proportion of the professoriate.) But then honorary degrees exist to acknowledge this kind of contribution. The PhD, properly, has its own understood function and place in the academic training hierarchy and no one is served by a diminution of its standing or a blurring of its function.

The council's report notes the need for researchers to be trained in the preparation of work for publication and the additional need to protect original work through publication. The majority of PhD regulations allow the inclusion of published work to encourage the one and secure the other. Equally, any supervisor failing to prepare her/his charge in the art of writing for publication is failing. Thus each of the identified needs can be met within the training remit and neither serves to argue for qualification without training.

Short reports and articles rarely connect their contribution to the relevant field by detailed demonstration. The norm, however, if fundamental research is to be protected and preserved, should be contributions based on a sound knowledge achieved through persistent and well-supported study. Equally, the rush to publication through the establishment of the research assessment exercise has expanded avenues for publication and suggests that research publications may not have retained the standard available, say, ten years ago.

Certainly, first shots and training exercises should not be automatically equated with the output of mature and established researchers. The council appears, at least, to have forgotten the educational role of research training, remembering only that a superficially similar product may be seen at the end of the day. The journey, for the sake of the student and the field, is more important than the thesis but the thesis stands as a demanding demonstration of learning and competence.

ANDREW MORGAN Graduate officer University of Wales Swansea

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