A lighter weight of paper?

The dilution of PhD standards damages the status of every aspect of UK academe, claims Kevin Sharpe

August 28, 2008

Recently there has been unusual noise and anxiety about the classification and the quality of our undergraduate degrees. If silence is any guide, there is no such concern about our PhDs, which are, after all, the entrance qualification to the academic clerisy, and are still spoken of with reverence as something beyond ordinary human accomplishment. Unfortunately the reality is otherwise. Just as bachelors degrees have become less demanding, so PhDs have become something quite different from what they were.

There is a connection between the two. Students with much less knowledge and understanding of their discipline and less-developed skills of independent research, critical thinking and clear exposition of argument are much less prepared to embark on a major piece of sustained research than was previously the case. Some years ago the funding councils recognised this and, in response to government pressure to expedite completions, established a one-plus-three-year funding model for doctorates that led grant-holders to study for a masters degree before proceeding to research. But with many more students proceeding to university and to graduate studies, masters degrees are now, at best, doing little more than introducing students to the demands they would once have faced as undergraduates.

Often even those with a masters degree now come to PhD study without the necessary grounding or learning to complete a piece of major research. Worse, the funding councils and universities now insist that PhDs are completed within three years and impose draconian penalties for later submission. Yet rapid completion does not necessarily demonstrate either effective study or good supervision. It was always difficult to complete a very good PhD in three or four years. Most successful professors I know did not. They completed theirs while holding temporary or permanent lectureships. To make it mandatory to complete a thesis within the arbitrarily allotted time, the requirements and expectations have had to be changed, and changed significantly.

Up until a few years ago, many universities' regulations still required that the thesis constituted "a significant and substantial contribution to knowledge", which is the point of the whole exercise, one might have thought. Now that requirement has gone even from elite universities, and in many institutions the external examiner is asked to assess only whether the dissertation reasonably reflects three years' work.

We therefore have many more PhDs, but many a doctoral thesis falls far short of what we might expect and no longer constitutes a reliable qualification for academia. This has serious implications for our international standing and the opportunities for our PhD students. In Europe it is still commonplace to take five or more years over a doctorate, not to mention the higher doctorates that are still required for entrance to academia in Germany and France.

Most US universities run six-year programmes from BA to PhD, including broad courses and training in research skills and methods, that require several well-researched seminar papers as preparation for the dissertation. Unsurprisingly, many American PhD theses read as more substantial and thoughtful contributions to their fields than their English equivalents. In an increasingly globalised academic profession, young English academics may find themselves losing out in the competition for jobs. And those who do succeed begin research and teaching careers without the knowledge base and rigorous training that should be expected of leading scholars and tutors.

To many this may not matter very much. While we may still want biologists who have enough knowledge and training to conduct research that makes medical breakthroughs, it may not matter that a historian only skims the sources for the study of an Early Modern village. But if we take that view we should know the consequences and implications for standards. The PhD remains an entrance qualification and a supposed guarantee of standards.

The dilution of the degree comes with a dilution of those standards and with that, as we have seen, of the status of the academic profession, indeed of scholarship and learning themselves.

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