Looks seem to be everything

February 9, 2007

Whose fault is it that an alarming number of students fail to understand what a PhD entails, asks Susan Bassnett

Twice in recent months I have come across PhD students quoting from Wikipedia in their dissertations. This is despite the detailed guidelines that now exist in most institutions that stress the importance of reliable scholarly sources for serious research. When I challenged one student, his response was amazement. Wasn't Wikipedia just as reliable as any encyclopaedia?

It isn't just the use of dodgy sources that bothers me. I keep encountering dissertations that make huge claims based on a tiny sample of material. In my field, this might mean that someone writes about three novels, yet makes large assumptions about a writer who has written another dozen. You have to be selective, I was told when I queried this, you can't read everything. No, I said, but you can't go around proclaiming in-depth knowledge of a writer who has produced 15 books when you have only read three of them.

But there seem to be unrealistic expectations about what a PhD should be, and my impression is that this lack of understanding is increasing. Whereas undergraduates know they have to pass exams and hand in coursework to get a degree, some PhD students arrive with a vague idea about a topic but a certainty that all they have to do is write something roughly on schedule and a degree will result automatically.

Since 2001, I have supervised to completion 19 PhDs. I also examine on average three theses a year. But my impression is that things are changing, that there is less attention to detail, less desire to write something exceptional and original, and more reliance on what are often unreliable sources. The end product seems to matter more than the process of learning through the research and writing. This is having an effect elsewhere; friends in publishing tell stories about rushed and inadequate manuscripts, and I have read badly written and banal essays submitted to journals. Is something going wrong? Are we failing to help postgraduates produce good-quality work?

We have quite rightly emphasised the importance of research training in recent years. I came across my own first dissertation last year and was shocked by the poor presentation. True, it was written on an ancient typewriter and my copy was on that thin paper you had to put under the carbon, but that didn't excuse its shoddiness; today even a first year would produce something more professional. But perhaps we have lulled students into a false sense of security, encouraging them to believe that if their presentation is excellent then the thinness of intellectual content won't matter so much.

One problem is the starting point for a PhD, which is often vague and loosely formulated. Of course, doctoral research is an organic process and the work grows and changes, but if not enough care is put into the project in the first place it cannot be expected to develop properly.

This is compounded by the pressure to accept doctoral students willy-nilly.

International fees, student numbers, the idea of research culture to sell to the research assessment exercise panels all conspire to push everyone to take on anybody who applies with even half an idea. But we don't help the student and ultimately our discipline if we accede to market pressures. A good PhD requires clarity of thinking from the start, a lot of self-discipline and intellectual rigour. Without that, no amount of supervision and training is going to be much help.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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