Academics fear PhD quality is slipping

Staff say that pressures to get more students through quickly are harming standards. Phil Baty reports

January 8, 2009

Concerns that PhD standards are under threat have been raised by academics.

A vox pop of Times Higher Education readers found that although most of those questioned believed that the standard of scholarship required to obtain a PhD remained high, many spoke out about threats to the future of the prestigious qualification as a mark of original research.

Readers cited concerns about mounting pressure to accept students who were not capable of doctoral-level work, problems with the level of support available to PhD students, concerns about overseas students' language difficulties and the bureaucratic difficulties of failing PhD candidates.

"It is inevitable that a push for quantity of PhD students leads to diminution of quality because resources never match the increases, leading to poor supervision, disappointed students and lower-quality work, inadequately challenged," said Roger Cowell of the University of Leeds Centre for Innovation in Health Management.

"Some PhD work is a marker of original scholarship, but it is the exception. This is sad for the students concerned; but, ironically, this number-crunching approach may well prepare them better than rigorous scholarship for the realities of publication-driven standards in modern academic life."

Vivienne Brunsden, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, said that increasing numbers of PhD students were not, in themselves, a problem because "there have always been many more people capable of PhD-level work than there were opportunities".

But she said the "marketisation of education and the drive to attract more PhD students who pay full fees" was damaging. "In this case, the PhD student becomes a 'customer' who expects to get something at the end of four years of financial, emotional and time investment, regardless of the quality of the work - which is, of course, problematic."

She said the problem was exacerbated by universities "targeting foreign PhD students who are prepared to pay full-cost fees but whose level of English is not necessarily at an appropriate level to undertake PhD-level study".

One academic who asked not to be named said that he had examined about 15 PhD theses in his career. "Certainly failing a student has become more bureaucratic, and there seems to be a belief that the failure is that of the institution rather than the student."

Morgan Meyer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield, obtained his PhD two years ago. He said that although his supervision was excellent, supervisors in general tended to have "just too many students to supervise", which meant students were not getting enough support.

He added that language problems among overseas students were a growing concern. "Unfortunately, UK universities seem more interested in the money they get from overseas student fees and the benefits of attracting lots of students than making sure the students they enrol have enough language skills to be able to embark on a PhD without too much suffering," he said.

Gillian Ania, a reader in Italian at the University of Salford, said that while the quality of the candidates and the quality of their theses were different issues, both elements "can be compromised in a scenario in which an institution's completion figures are deemed more important than the individual student and his or her thesis".

She said that too much pressure from managers, driven by league tables, "can lead to poorly articulated or inadequately developed theses - and all because of the emphasis on quantity (number of completions) rather than quality (an intellectually developed, original investigation)".

Pressure on students to complete "before they are ready" was a particular concern for international students because they "may need additional time to develop their writing style and awareness of the finer points of English expression", she said.

She compared the situation in higher education to road safety, where the proliferation of road signs had made roads less safe because "the signs stifle individual driver judgments".

"Individual responsibility and judgment are continuously being undermined and eroded," she said.


One thing I am sure of is that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were plenty of "time-server" PhDs who did what they were told for three or four years, with little understanding, and a lot of help in writing up from their supervisors. Since failure is extremely rare, I suspect that PhDs have always covered the full range of ability from the brilliant to the bovine. It is not a badge of competence now, and it never was.

David Colquhoun, Professor of pharmacology, University College London

I find the most effective way of screening out the unprepared is to ask "why on earth do you want a PhD?" and only continuing to entertain those who give a realistic answer. The expansion that is taking place is in the recruitment of overseas candidates. A colleague recently received from outside the UK a PhD proposal that she recognised as entirely plagiarised. When confronted, the applicant replied by email: "Yes its true may god forgive me (sic)."

John Ellis, Professor, department of media arts, Royal Holloway, University of London

In my experience, the increased focus on "other" skills training has taken time away from the core thesis work at the same time as overall time frames are being more stringently policed. You cannot have wider training and reduced time to completion (while still) maintaining quality.

Ben Anderson, Director, Technology and Social Change Research Centre, University of Essex

For students in research-intensive universities, who are usually externally funded, I would say that the expectations and therefore the quality required to pass are higher than they used to be. Most are expected to produce peer-reviewed journal papers during their PhD as well as to produce a traditional thesis. It is much more competitive to get postdoc jobs without any publications. Also, the jobs postdocs get are very insecure, so the pressure to publish off the PhD continues.

Clare Bambra, Lecturer, department of geography, Durham University

Doctoral study should mean "an original contribution to knowledge". I am less concerned by increased numbers of PhD students than I am by the failure of some disciplines to engage with creativity, innovation and originality.

Graeme Harper, Director, National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, Bangor University

I was asked to consider doing a PhD after my MA in international relations and decided that I couldn't really delay my career for another three years with a low salary unless I was committed to becoming an academic. I think that people should never decide to do a PhD just because they can't think of anything better to do and they like the student lifestyle - delaying "proper" work for a few more years.

Tim Scott, Departmental operations administrator, Imperial College London

As someone with experience of assessing/examining more than 20 doctoral theses, I think that standards are still being maintained. The threshold for award is still held. In my experience, modern universities are more formally firm about that than more traditional institutions. Modern universities have to be seen to be equal and so strive to be better.

Ian McNay, Professor emeritus, higher education and management, University of Greenwich

I've never been put under any pressure to admit someone "not up to the task". In fact, in most cases they are better prepared in terms of research skills, use of information technology and the like than I was when I embarked on mine at the University of Bristol in 1979. PhDs are still rigorously examined and referral or failure still enforced by examiners who are not, in my experience, open to corruption.

Gillian Grant, Darlington College

One cannot help but be suspicious of claims that current PhDs are generally lacking in quality when these claims are not backed by any evidence comparing samples of recently submitted PhD theses to appropriate samples of past ones - from whatever alleged "golden age" we are supposed to be nostalgic about.

Constantine Sandis, Senior lecturer in philosophy, Oxford Brookes University

Research is treated as a commodity on a production line at all levels, and the PhD is not immune. Nevertheless, the advice I give to students regarding a PhD is the same that I was given when I was an undergraduate. You should embark on a PhD for what I describe as "the mountain-climbing reason" - namely because it is there. To commence a PhD for general employability or market advantage reasons is somewhat naive, at least in the UK.

Mark S. Leeson, Associate professor, School of Engineering, University of Warwick.

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