Gloria Monday: Only a crumb of comfort

Although the PhD she examined was as bad as the lunch, Gloria Monday chokes down her objections

September 28, 2009

I still remember the first time anyone asked me to examine a PhD thesis. I was so chuffed, I spent days preparing. I not only read the thesis, I read a whole pile of extra bits and pieces, reflecting that for once my opinion was going to be valued. The examination was pretty rigorous, I recall, and the student was thoroughly grilled, but afterwards he stayed in touch and even put in a small acknowledgement to me when the thesis was eventually published.

I still get a rosy glow when I think about that first time. Goodness knows you don’t get many such rosy moments examining PhDs these days. For a start, they have proliferated like rabbits in Australia – where once upon a time doctoral students were thin on the ground, now they appear in crowds and you have to run group sessions for them. None of your old one-to-one tutorials these days, it’s pack ’em in as tight as you can – especially if they are paying fat overseas fees.

There seems to have been a sea change in attitudes to PhDs. It isn’t just that everybody has to have one if they want to get a job in a university, it’s that so many people without much to say seem to have signed up to do research. There are some terrific PhD theses that occasionally get turned into decent books, but there is also a lot of absolute dross. The other day, it was just my luck to end up examining a PhD of the worst kind. I should never have agreed to do it in the first place.

There are some things that you read with mounting pleasure, a book or an article that is so well written or so full of great new ideas that you don’t care how long it takes you to get to the end. The first PhD I examined was like that, and sometimes you hear graduate students give conference papers that make you wish you could read their whole thesis.

And then there are the things you read with a growing sense of doom and desolation, either because there isn’t an original thought in them or because the quality of English is so bad you can’t understand half of what is being said. The PhD I was sent to examine was definitely bottom of the range: it was little more than an account of various basic texts on the period that the student claimed to have read and summarised. There was a basic idea, a “thesis”, of sorts, but it wasn’t developed, just restated endlessly. I started correcting the minor errors, but by page 137 I gave up, having spent several hours noting literally dozens of mistakes.

I sent in a preliminary report saying that I would rather give a PhD to my cat than to this student (I didn’t phrase it quite like that – I used the usual academic niceties) and set off for the oral exam. I found my way to the office of the other examiner, who suggested we meet for lunch and exchange notes. I knew him vaguely: nothing to write home about in the scholarly stakes, but affable enough. We wandered round a deserted building before finally coming across a coffee shop selling a few stale sandwiches, which was clearly all the lunch I was going to get. The first PhD I examined involved a trip to a decent restaurant, but times have changed and the quality of external examiners’ lunches has definitely declined.

It was obvious within minutes that it wasn’t just the lunches that had gone downhill. The other examiner thought the thesis was great: a fine piece of work, he said, showing serious reading of secondary sources. True, I replied, but this research should have been based on archive work, and the student didn’t seem to have done any. Why spend all that time in libraries when we have the internet as a resource, came the response. So what about the dire English and all the spelling mistakes and typos? I continued. The other examiner wasn’t having any of that: nobody in 2009 bothered about spelling any longer; what we were there to do was to scrutinise the quality of the student’s mind.

Besides, he added, looking over his shoulder to see if he could be overheard, there was “a bit of a supervision problem”. Like four different supervisors over as many years, apparently – the result of employing part-time staff who are off as soon as a better position comes round.

When the student came in, you could see that all the supervision in the world wouldn’t have helped him much because he could barely understand English. But he was cheerful, accepted critical comments with insouciance, apologised and smiled and generally gave me to understand that he had been assured that he would pass because if he didn’t his father would sue the university because he had paid huge fees and had not been supervised adequately.

Reader, I confess I capitulated. There are times when, however strongly you feel about dumbing down, you just have to grin and bear it. At least, I console myself, he had actually written a thesis. In a few more years, you’ll probably be able to buy a PhD without writing a word!

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