A 'taboo' topic is aired on the web

In dispatches from the front line, readers weigh in on the problems plaguing PhDs, writes John Gill

January 8, 2009

For a supposedly "taboo" subject, it hasn't half got people talking.

From tales of woeful supervision and accusations of money-grubbing motives to good old-fashioned Government-bashing, the debate about the quality of PhDs appears to be alive and kicking.

In November, Times Higher Education reported concerns from Chris Park, the director of Lancaster University's Graduate School, that despite pressure to increase PhD numbers, some disciplines lacked "good-quality students with good potential" ("Taboo but true: PhD students 'not up to scratch'?", 20 November 2008). He said the issue was largely "taboo" and "unspoken". But the story prompted a flurry of comments on the Times Higher Education website.

Many postings were critical of the way that universities viewed the PhD, claiming that it was now seen as little more than a cash cow.

"The problem is, in our market-obsessed system, PhD students can be a lucrative source of income, especially if they are non-European Union and thus pay high fees," one reader wrote.

"Even if academics decide that an applicant is not suitably qualified, they may well be overruled by university managers concerned with income rather than standards."

Others linked the supposed deterioration in quality to a drop in expectations.

"Gone is the requirement that a doctoral thesis should represent a meaningful research result. Instead, the requirement is that students should have undergone 'research training'," one reader said.

David Knight, a sociologist, argued that the current situation, which he said included universities offering PhDs to students with third-class degrees, was sometimes a way of getting "cheap labour". He said: "If the advertised PhD project is boring and unappealing enough to fail to attract the most talented students, it will instead be offered to the most available."

Dave Middleton, who led a project on the teaching of research methods, said: "The idea of what constitutes good supervision may be based on an assumption that PhD students are self-motivated and among the top 10 per cent of students. This is no longer the case."

One poster warned that "the future of research in the UK and in countries that look up to the UK for this calibre of manpower is doomed".

But Constantine Nana wrote that the supposed shortcomings of UK PhD students was nothing new. While agreeing that there were weaknesses, he said that "the same can be said of PhD students from other countries with influential systems such as the US or Canada".

Several commentators argued for more control of the number of PhD places on offer.

But Barb Hebden, who said she had been teaching at a university for nine years, said any problem of oversupply applied to self-funded places only. She had struggled to find a funded PhD, she said, despite having "razor-sharp literature search skills, a first-class degree and a masters from a major university ... and generally seeming to be the perfect PhD candidate".



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