US scholar damns UK PhDs after 'regrettable experience'

Website of academic who spent nine fruitless years at Brighton warns others off study. John Gill reports

May 14, 2009

An American academic has set up a website that warns against doctoral study in the UK, specifically at the University of Brighton.

Rick Sheridan, assistant professor of journalism at Wilberforce University in Ohio, said studying part-time for a PhD at Brighton over the past nine years had been a "regrettable experience".

On the website, set up "to warn others not to enrol on a British research doctorate programme without serious consideration of the potential consequences", he outlines a series of complaints about the way Brighton handled his project.

He also raises concerns about British PhDs in general, although he admits that studying part-time during the summer holidays had contributed to his difficulties.

Mr Sheridan said the problems he encountered included a lack of continuity and communication with lecturers and staff, unclear and inconsistent guidelines for assessment and shifting expectations.

He said he had initially pursued a practice-based doctoral model, focusing on learning strategies for the elderly, but this had to be ditched when his supervisor left Brighton, leaving him and several other PhD students high and dry.

Detailing a series of other setbacks, Mr Sheridan said: "The impression I get now is that the administration decided several years ago that my thesis would never pass. They were happy to take my enrolment fees and offer vague encouragement.

"I have completely rewritten the thesis five different times, practically starting over each time ... It is very unfair for students to spend huge amounts of time and money when there is such a high level of structural problems."

Questioning the quality of supervision for British PhDs in general, Mr Sheridan added: "I made the mistake of attempting a research doctorate in a disorganised environment."

Brighton was one of six universities singled out by a 2007 report on PhD completion rates by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The report revealed the proportion of doctoral students who had failed to qualify within seven years.

At Brighton, there was a large gap between the 40 per cent of postgraduates who completed and the 78 per cent that Hefce said should have qualified.

An updated version of the report is due to be published this summer.

A spokeswoman for Brighton said that a 2008 institutional audit by the Quality Assurance Agency found the university's "management of support, supervision and assessment of its postgraduate research students to be rigorous and effective".

She added: "The University of Brighton is confident in the robustness and the standards of its doctoral provision.

"It has a system of continual review and enhancement of processes, and a rigorous system of monitoring the progress of individual candidates."

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Reader's comments (1)

I am the person in the article. The author, John Gill, did an excellent job in writing this article. Here is one additional problem that I would like to go over. The first five years that I was at the University of Brighton was what we would call a 'popularity contest' here in the USA. Several of the PhD students quickly graduated in much less than the usual time because they continually flattered our supervisor, Dr Chris Mullen. Many of the others were left to spend their life’s savings on the Ph.D programme with a general lack of support. Once Chris resigned, the University of Brighton radically changed the Ph.D programme and eliminated the practiced-based part of the doctorate, essentially making us start over. Beware of these 'research doctorates,' they are largely based on whether you humour your supervisor (he or she has all of the power). The situation may have changed, but back then it was largely un-monitored with very little oversight by the top staff or administration.

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