Nancy Rothwell

July 23, 2004

There is a danger British doctorates will not be seen to meet European standards, but more red tape is not the answer

A PhD viva examination is a demanding and tense event, at least for the student. Experienced examiners should take most PhD exams in their stride (hopefully PhD students don't repeat the experience). Yet one of my more stressful experiences was as a PhD examiner. Certainly this was not my first PhD student, but it was not a "cosy" chat between two examiners and the student, as is often the case in the UK.

In Sweden, like in many European countries, PhD exams are public, in this case very public. The student was a fully qualified surgeon, several years older than me. As required in Sweden, the candidate had published five first-author papers and had co-authored several others, so there was little doubt about the quality of his work. His thesis had been reviewed by a committee of senior staff and clearly deemed acceptable for the "public ordeal". The stressful part was the audience. On the platform was just me as the external examiner and the student. Staring intently at us were all of the staff and students from the department, the heads of many other departments (the candidate's father had been professor of surgery for many years) and his very extended family.

The first challenge fell on me to summarise, in ten minutes, the key findings of the thesis (I couldn't understand why the examiner had to undertake this onerous task, but didn't like to ask). So far so good, until I asked my first question - a simple opener I thought. It was met by a protracted silence from the PhD student.

What seemed like an eternity later, after I had tried various approaches and was also getting stressed, he found his voice and the rest went smoothly. He was awarded his PhD, and I certainly felt that I had earned the beautiful vase I was given at the lengthy celebrations that followed.

Although I could have done without the trauma, I was impressed by the very high standards required for a PhD and by the rigour of the examination, something of a contrast to the UK, where many PhD students submit a thesis with no or few publications, never mind first-author papers. Indeed, meeting the standards set by many other European countries would be impossible within the very short duration of the British PhD. Three years is barely time to get started on a difficult research topic, get on top of the literature and complete all those courses and reports, let alone publish a string of papers and write a thesis running to several hundreds of pages.

Many UK universities are now moving to four-year PhDs, or at least a flexible "one plus three", which undoubtedly improves the chances of tackling a significant project and publishing the findings. But there is still a danger that the British PhD will not be seen to meet the standards of our European counterparts, including the most recent members of the European Union. In many parts of Eastern Europe, the quality of life may be low by our standards, but the rigour of scientific training is high. How well would our biologists cope with acquiring the detailed knowledge of physics and mechanics required to build their own equipment, before even beginning their research?

The quality of graduate training and examination in the UK may be excellent (at least generally speaking), but it needs to be seen to be so if our graduates are to compete with the Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans and the Chinese, who at the best universities learn ethics, several languages and arts in addition to their chosen subject in science. Maybe new regulations for PhD training will change all this. But I am sure I was not alone in shuddering with horror as I read that future PhD training may come under the Quality Assurance Agency. Visions of vast paper trails (all checked and rechecked), detailed processes, numerous supervisors, advisors and ill-defined "others" looking over your shoulder instantly spring to mind.

Many universities now have excellent training courses for graduate students and regular checks on progress that ensure high completion rates. It shouldn't be too difficult to use these best practices more widely, without micromanaging every PhD.

In the end it's the output that really counts - the quality of the student and of the work he or she has done, which, as far as I can tell, no one ever checks. In fact, the only people who ever read a thesis are probably the student, the supervisor and the examiners - and perhaps the friends/partners/colleagues who proofread. Maybe a little more quality assurance in the final product is warranted, but preferably not with extensive bureaucracy, and I'd certainly prefer to ask the difficult questions without mums, dads and great-aunts watching.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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