On smarter supervision and smarter PhDs

June 15, 2017

Thank you for the feature “Of monsters and mentors” (1 June). The stories from the PhD students really resonated with me and the other students in my lab, particularly the accounts of casual neglect, erosion of self-confidence and pressure to remain silent and stick it out resulting from the power dynamics involved in the supervisor-student relationship. The stories validate my own difficult experiences during the degree, whereas before I might have dismissed my own concerns as born of ungratefulness or unfair personal bias.

I published multiple first-author academic papers before beginning my degree, but after years of study I have (as yet) failed to publish anything from my doctoral studies. I’m not sure whether my supervisor bears the responsibility for this, but whether and where to place blame is beside the point because, without papers from my PhD, I have no chance of pursuing a career in academia when I graduate. The story is the same for many of my colleagues, very few of whom have remained in academia. Some leave for industrial research jobs; others, like me, for non-research roles.

I’ve often thought that a good indicator of a supervisor’s value as an academic mentor would be the percentage of their students who remain (and thrive) in academia. Such a measure might not be perfect. It could introduce perverse incentives for supervisors, such as encouraging students with little academic potential to pursue postdoctoral opportunities (where many academic careers already languish); but it would at least provide some insight to students, before beginning a research degree, of their chances of an academic career after four years of diligent work under a particular supervisor.

Name and address provided

 

In the light of Alexander Zubatov’s feature concerning the need for more deep thinkers and the crucial role of higher education (“Selecting for superficiality”, 25 May), it was encouraging to see also Tara Brabazon’s critical review of The Idea of the PhD: The Doctorate in the Twenty-First-Century Imagination (Books, 25 May).

In the centenary year of the current-style PhD in the UK, consider how far the degree has broadened in its scope.

Intense intellectual capability and effort is required to earn a PhD in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which are constrained by the demands of logic and maths; and the same is true in many other scholarly disciplines. However, at some UK institutions nowadays, a PhD can also be awarded for performance activities such as dance or for creative writing. While the commitment required may be the same, such programmes surely demand a very different range of skills and accomplishments, resulting in different outcomes.

Are they sufficiently comparable to justify the same degree, or is there, to use the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s term, a “category mistake” involved? Might a variation in the degree title be beneficial in some cases? Or is this apparent equalisation just the result of administrative convenience?

As Brabazon concludes: “It is valuable to probe the purpose of the PhD…Imagination is not at issue. Intellectual property, academic integrity and international standards must remain the lens through which we view the doctorate.”

Paul G. Ellis
Business school tutor
London and Chichester


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