Supervisors run thesis 'factories'

September 30, 2005

Academics are turning universities into PhD factories by caring more about the speed with which a thesis is written than its quality, according to the National Postgraduate Committee, writes Jessica Shepherd.

The NPC is concerned that PhD supervisors are sacrificing the quality of their students' research by increasingly pressuring them to finish a PhD in three years.

The committee, which represents about 400,000 students in the UK, believes that the pressure on postgraduates is the result of funding councils squeezing cash from departments where PhDs take the longest to complete their studies.

Jim Ewing, the general secretary of the NPC, said the factory analogy was accurate. "There is no longer the open-ended study for a PhD that there used to be. Nowadays it is often the reverse.

"There is sometimes more of an emphasis on getting a PhD done in time, rather than the experience that is associated with doing a PhD," he said.

He added that if students were under time constraints, they could feel compelled to submit too soon, before receiving sufficient guidance.

"This means the quality of PhDs is going to deteriorate. Many students do not get the full 'PhD experience'," he said.

The Roberts review announced in 2002 that skills training was a vital element of a research degree programme. It recommended that universities allow PhD students to devote two weeks a year to networking.

Rebecca Mancy, a third-year PhD student in education at Glasgow University, still struggles to find the time to attend conferences for networking, let alone planning her own conferences.

She said: "As PhD students, we need to meet others in our field. Otherwise, it is hard to have the kinds of discussion necessary to further our research.

"We don't know whether or not we should be organising conferences or whether we have the time to get papers published. There appears now to be the tendency for research centres to become PhD factories."

Darren Monckton, professor of biomedical and life sciences and a PhD supervisor at Glasgow, believes that having a strict deadline helps his students.

He said: "In the past, there have been supervisors who used PhD students as cheap labour. Having a serious completion date stops this happening. Also, it is accepted by PhD examiners that students can't achieve as much in two and a half years as they can in five. That doesn't necessarily mean that PhDs are of less high quality, though.

"I don't think it is fair to say that academics are turning universities into PhD factories. We are training students to become future researchers, and the fact that they are no longer being used as cheap labour should be celebrated. Examiners are realising that the work submitted is based on what is achievable in three years."

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