Half of theses fail to show how they advance to knowledge

Many doctoral candidates do not make clear their work’s scholarly contribution

April 18, 2013

Almost half of doctoral candidates fail to claim that their theses have contributed to knowledge despite this being the main criterion on which they are assessed, a study has found.

Researchers looked at the conclusions of 100 PhD theses from Israel, South Africa and the UK, mainly in the field of education but also in a range of other disciplines. Some 46 per cent made no claims to have contributed to knowledge.

“This is despite it being the criterion that has to be met for the university to award their doctorate,” said Vernon Trafford, professor emeritus at Anglia Ruskin University, who presented the work at the UK Council for Graduate Education’s International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training, on 11 and 12 April.

One of the study’s findings was that candidates assumed that readers would recognise merit in their thesis without it being claimed, he said.

This led to questions about whether some students were unaware that they had done something to advance knowledge, and whether it should be the job of the examiner to “disentangle” where original contribution had occurred, he added.

One delegate offered up an explanation for the study’s results, saying that candidates always underplayed what they had achieved “because they’re too close to the work and have not yet got the distance from it to see what it is they have achieved”.

Another noted that PhD students were “terrified of claiming anything in case the external examiner will have a different view of what the contribution is”.

The oral examination or viva voce often ended up as an opportunity to “negotiate” with examiners about what the contribution to knowledge was, the delegate added.

The study was carried out with Shosh Leshem, head of teacher education at the Oranim Academic College of Education, Israel, and Eli Blitzer, director of the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa.

Although Professor Trafford said it was not for the authors to say who should take responsibility for making the contribution to knowledge clear, as a supervisor he made sure that candidates “make quite explicit what it is they’ve found” and what they were claiming as the basis for their discovery.


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