University sectors have been urged to consider introducing systematic entry arrangements for doctoral education, amid warnings that ad hoc and often lenient PhD admission mechanisms may be failing to filter out applicants who do not have what it takes.
A major report compiled by Australian researchers on the future of the PhD found that 60 per cent or more of would-be doctoral candidates were being accepted in some departments and faculties.
“Such high admission rates raise questions about entry standards,” the report says, suggesting that many incoming PhD students struggle to meet expectations. “Traditional admissions pathways can…fail to clarify competence and potential.”
The recommendation for admissions reform is among 12 “ideas for improvement” stemming from the project led by the University of Melbourne, which was conceived in 2014 as a “landmark rethinking of the doctorate”. The report offers a doctoral “design architecture” in response to widespread recognition that Australia needs a “more coherent approach” to PhD training.
The architecture can “help clarify and align successes with experiences and preparations”, the report says. “Such clarifications can avoid dashed expectations, dropout and burnout, and support more prudent management of costs and returns.”
Project leader Hamish Coates, now a professor in Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, said that PhDs were relatively new qualifications that were yet to be subjected to scientific inquiry. “It’s pretty much anything goes,” he said.
Professor Coates said that examinations of PhDs were particularly idiosyncratic in Australia – “far less systematic than in most of our benchmark countries” – while admissions in the country tended to be handled by schools and faculties. “That’s an area where Australia lags,” he said.
“Many other countries have more robust entrance tests and interviews that give more weight to considerations of the students’ capability and prospects. We allocate large amounts of public funds to people to do PhDs without really any concrete evidence as to whether they’re going to have a fruitful outcome.
“We need a much better process of helping you as an aspirant PhD applicant understand the odds of success as you go through the programme, and the odds of employment at the end of it.”
Professor Coates said that universities should consider introducing standardised information to underpin admissions, entrance interviews and background requirements; standardised assessments throughout PhDs; and standardised examination procedures at the end. Coordination was needed to ensure that entrance requirements at different universities were similar.
“If someone’s judged not to be a future prospect for that field, they can’t simply walk down the road to another university and get admission to another programme that’s not going to lead anywhere,” Professor Coates said.
“The focus should not be getting people in. Admission rates are high in Australia. It should be getting people out and contributing.”
The report also proposes “baseline” advice, support and research opportunities for PhD students. Universities should provide foundation programmes to help students “build a sense of peer group” during their studies, it adds.
Doctoral graduates should also maintain “lifetime contact” with their alma maters to help overcome a paucity of information about the broad personal and social outcomes of PhD study, the report says.