The big push: are PhDs too tough?

Study suggests doctorates are now seen as a test of character rather than intellect

May 2, 2018
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The road less travelled: PhD students need to withstand ‘some level of suffering’

As academia’s most exalted qualification, the PhD is still widely regarded as solid proof of elevated intellectual power. It can also evoke loftier ideas of “brilliance”, “excellence” and, on some occasions, even “genius”.

The perception of the PhD is rather different within academia, it seems. According to a new paper published in Teaching in Higher Education, many academics and doctoral students see the PhD process not so much as an intellectual feat but as a test of character – or, in the words of one PhD supervisor interviewed for the report, a “matter of personality rather than abilities”.

Drawing on interviews with 55 PhD students, supervisors and academic administrators from the humanities and social science departments of an unnamed Canadian university, the study by Isabelle Skakni, a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford’s department of education, titled Doctoral studies as an initiatory trial: expected and taken-for-granted practices that impede PhD progress, found that qualities such as “self-sacrifice” and the ability to withstand “some level of suffering” or “intellectual isolation” were often more valued than “talent” or “intelligence”.

“To me, you don’t need to be very intelligent to do a doctorate,” explains one PhD student, who added that “you just need to be assiduous and strategic”.

Many PhD students also “talked about having a strong personality, being self-disciplined, not being too sensitive to criticism and having an ‘obsessive side’ to be able to focus on a very specific topic over several years”, the study relates.

For supervisors and administrators, “advancing in a doctoral process is comparable to ‘climbing Everest’, running a ‘long-distance race’ or a ‘marathon’”, the paper adds. “Ultimately, ‘those who survive [the process] have something heroic’,” says one PhD supervisor.

The enduring perception of the PhD as an “initiatory trial” – in which the “sacrifice norm appears to be so deeply anchored in academic attitudes and practices” – meant many engaged in doctoral studies did not question whether this model best serves students or academia, argues Dr Skakni, who is also an associated researcher at Laval University, in Canada.

“If obtaining a PhD undoubtedly testifies to their [students'] determination and efforts, the quality of the thesis in itself and which research competencies are formally certified by the diploma remain harder to identify,” concludes Dr Skakni.

Accepting that a PhD process will “inevitably push students to their limits”, as described by several students, also “legitimises both feelings of intellectual isolation and solitude”, rather than seeing these issues as problems that require action from institutions, she says.

Making the PhD into a gruelling test of character, which could be passed only by those who “know the rules of the game”, also risks “developing a unique profile of researcher”, claim other PhD students and supervisors.

“What concerns us is the relevance of producing a single kind of PhD holder,” says one supervisor in social sciences, who added that “maybe we should change the type of training to get a different profile [of researchers]…because we tend to create ‘savant idiots’.”

Robert MacIntosh, head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, told Times Higher Education that while the “mythology of PhDs [had] centred on the rite of passage [and] trial by viva ordeal”, it was more accurate to think about doctoral studies in terms of taking an “apprenticeship” – with the examination at the end ensuring you can “conduct research without dual controls and a qualified researcher looking over your every decision”.

In this sense, the PhD is akin to a driving test, which ensures that a driver is capable of operating a car independently to an acceptable level, said Professor MacIntosh.

“Passing your test does not equate to your suddenly becoming Lewis Hamilton,” he said, adding that “many plodding researchers will emerge from their PhD and do plodding research in mediocre journals [and] a few burst on the world scene publishing works of brilliance in short order.

“Many more gradually get better and better, learning their craft, refining their work, improving their analysis and writing skills to mature into key voices in the literature,” said Professor MacIntosh, who runs, which offers advice on doctoral studies.

Given the rigours of conducting independent academic research, having a testing PhD process was not a bad idea, said Professor MacIntosh, who said it would “keep those who can’t even plod out of circulation".

“It is probably an unnecessary pre-condition for the superstars and mould breakers, though it is an entirely useful grounding for the late bloomers,” he added.

One administrator who contributed to Dr Skakni's study also worried that the current PhD arrangements favoured “1970s student profiles [who are] full-time students living alone or with their parents”.

Unencumbered by jobs or family, these students are “devoting their entire time to their thesis without any interruption”, the administrator adds, saying that “many universities…still don’t structure the process by taking into account new demographic profiles”.

However, many supervisors interviewed for the study were less apologetic about the fact that the PhD was, to some extent, a test of character. This is an essential part of becoming an autonomous researcher – with “autonomy” being the most frequently discussed attribute in the study, says Dr Skakni.

One supervisor defended the attritional nature of the PhD because some students had been “mistakenly admitted” and “did not have ‘what it takes’” to complete a doctorate, so it would be a “disservice to them” to suggest they would stay the course.

‘You want to play the research game? Know the rules’

Isabelle Skakni, visiting postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford’s department of education, uncovered a range of views on the PhD in interviews for her study. Here is a sample:

“I don’t necessarily believe in all-out competition, but it’s as if only the best ones can survive.”
PhD supervisor, business administration

“I usually say to my students: doing research, it’s a game. You want to play? Know the rules.”

“A good PhD student, it’s someone who has adopted the scientific mindset very fast, who does what faculty do. It’s someone who understands how it works.”
PhD student, social sciences

“Finishing fast – let’s say four or five years – is also an asset. The longer you take, the more you have to justify.”
PhD supervisor, humanities

“[There is a] naive optimism that if you work hard, you’re going to make it: you’ll get there.”

“Some students are mistakenly admitted. We have done a disservice to them. Sometimes, from the beginning, it was obvious that they will fail. They have got some intellectual strengths, but not what is needed to do a doctorate.”
PhD supervisor, social sciences

“There are no real instructions to help us in preparing [a PhD thesis]. Some of my peers had submitted 45-page texts, but I did more than 100 pages. Nobody told me that it was too much.”
PhD student, education

“My colleagues…have so many workload concerns that they wish only to supervise what they call ‘autonomous students’ who are asked to get by on their own.”
PhD supervisor, education

“We must support them after the PhD as well. For letters of reference, for job search strategies, for postdocs. It doesn’t mean that I will hold their hand for the rest of their life, but I feel responsible for them.”
PhD supervisor, philosophy

“[PhD students] must have published in addition to their thesis. They have to build their research résumé fast whilst doing their PhD. They must have some teaching experience as well. Otherwise it’s impossible to get an academic position.”
PhD supervisor, humanities

“Faculty should be trained to supervise. They are not trained…it’s believed that you have it innately. How can we assume that having a PhD gives the competencies to supervise someone? It’s absurd!”

“According to many of my colleagues, PhD students have to suffer, and this suffering is necessary to do a high-quality doctorate. To me, no! I think we must help them to find some pleasure in the task. Otherwise, they will give up!”
PhD supervisor, social sciences

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Print headline: The big push: are PhDs too tough?

Reader's comments (2)

No. The PhD system in the UK is adequate. It is supposed to be difficult and, shock horror, there will be times when it is stressful. Ome does have to make sacrifices.
Is the unnamed Canadian University where these 55 cases were observed Laval uni by any chance? Lol

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