PhD comes with straitjacket

May 21, 2004

What's happened to original thought? The doctoral system seems to have killed it off, says Allan Reese

The reputation of the UK PhD, widely viewed as a badge of excellence, is becoming precarious.

The introduction in the 1980s of sanctions against universities in which a certain proportion of students did not submit their theses within four years has had unintended consequences. Imposing a guillotine of three years' research, plus one year without fees for writing up, has shifted responsibility from student to supervisor - the student may move on but the supervisor has to face the consequences.

The purpose of the PhD was thus implicitly subverted. It can no longer be a report of research that occupies whatever time is necessary to reach original conclusions. It must now be assessed as an acceptable volume and level of work by a novice researcher in a fixed period.

Another change, while laudable, is that PhD students attend training, which further reduces the time available for research. This creates a real paradox: advanced students are expected to develop as independent, self-regulating researchers, but are increasingly dragooned in everything they do.

The number of research students has increased some 20-fold since the 1970s.

Many come from overseas, pay fees, and expect to go home with the kudos of a UK doctorate. The implications of failure for such students puts another pressure on staff. They face being considered a disgrace to their family if privately funded. Although in theory students must demonstrate adequate knowledge of English before being accepted, it is common for supervisors to have to rewrite and improve entire theses. That practice is not restricted to students with English as a second language, and many PhDs are doubtfully described as the "student's original work".

Some might argue that more students carrying out more research in a more competitive environment should lead to faster accumulation of knowledge.

Yet students realise it is now more important to conform to examiners'

expectations than to challenge accepted knowledge. The majority of theses are formulaic and unread except as an exam script.

Students' anxiety is compounded by not knowing what the examiners are looking for. Senior academics will all claim to recognise doctoral quality in their discipline but often deny that there are generic qualities that transfer across disciplines. Obtaining a PhD is a matter of joining one of the multitude of discipline-based research cliques. Examiners will be sounded out to ensure that they are sympathetic to the research approach being examined. The best tactic for any student whose main aim is to obtain a PhD certificate rather than to make discoveries is to carry out the supervisor's demands to the letter. If such a student is failed, they may succeed by appealing on the grounds of inadequate supervision.

The UK PhD is in crisis. One attempt to address the problem has been the introduction of alternative "equivalent" qualifications such as the "new route PhD" and "professional doctorates". But unless a wider review takes place and true measures of quality consistent with the aim of recognising a genuine and original contribution to knowledge are introduced, the system will collapse.

Allan Reese worked at the University of Hull but left higher education with relief earlier this year.

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