Lax PhD entry requirements need reform, says study

‘Anything goes’ approach does not serve doctoral candidates, universities or funders, say researchers

March 13, 2019
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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.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Anything goes’ approach not working: Lax doctoral entry requirements need reform, says Australian study

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Reader's comments (3)

What sorts of processes are used that are effective? The idea of somewhat continuous enrolment, without a gathered field evaluation, doesn't help identify the best candidates really. Given too that students come in interested in a very narrow area, what we produce represents an extremely siloed views on research topics. We have constant "programme improvements" coming from those without Ph.Ds. We should be looking at real solutions as suggested in this article around pre-admissions assessment and more strict previous degree requirements.
I left Australia to do a PhD (fully funded) in the UK almost ten years ago, as I knew if I stayed in Australia I would never get a job, even though I was likely to get better funding and conditions for a PhD. At the time, the Australian system demanded rigor; high quality research proposals; minimum first class degrees for admission; and in most fields prospective students needed to be published to be considered for admission with full scholarship. Recently, a family member was guaranteed govt funding as long as they were accepted by the university into the PhD programme (which is actually against the federal funding rules, not being a competitive process). This person is very useful to their future supervisor, providing plenty of cheap labour and technical skill, but doesn't seem to posses the necessary critical or intellectual abilities for PhD level work. I can't understand what has changed in ten years?
The worst of it is the lack of any testing, such as the US GRE. Many departments take anyone who fulfills the entry requirements and can identify a supervisor -- and we come under a lot of pressure to be willing to supervise. For the international students, in many cases we're essentially running an immigration agency. For the domestic ones, we're often ruining their careers by recruiting them. It really is shocking.

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