Why fast food PhDs don’t nourish

THE's Asia-Pacific editor John Ross ponders the pluses of a slow-cooked doctorate

July 13, 2018
fast food

The fast food analogies just keep coming in academia. Casual tutors claim to be the McDonald’s workers of the higher education sector. Liberal arts students are warned to expect a similar fast food fate – a recent caution came from US presidential candidate Jeb Bush who told psychology and philosophy majors that they would end up working for fried chicken chain Chick-fil-A.

Meanwhile, higher education veterans complain that universities have adopted a fast food business model where academics are relegated to customer service specialists. Conscious of the cost of their studies, students demand good grades. Those who don’t get them give bad customer feedback. Do you want fries with your degree?

Restaurants can serve meals quickly, relying on rapid turnover of tables to maximise their profits; or they can slow things down, give customers a memorable experience and put their faith in return custom and word of mouth. 

Universities face a similar choice with their premium dish – the PhD. Do you get students credentialled in the standard three years, and out the door as quickly as possible? Or do you give them time to achieve something spectacular, savour long hours spent researching and crafting their thesis, so that you can then bask in their reflected glory?

The Wellcome Trust has opted for the latter, bankrolling four-year PhDs at its partner universities in the UK and Ireland. Now an Australian physicist is lobbying for longer doctorates as well. 

David Reilly argues that squeezing a complex research project into a preordained 36 months just doesn’t suit the student – or the project. “It’s difficult to constrain nature into revealing its secrets in three years,” he argues.

“Some problems are easy. Some are hard. Some appear easy and turn out to be hard. Some turn out not to be viable. But you wouldn’t want to be on the verge of achieving something with pretty significant impact, thinking, I’ve only got three years.”

Cutting PhDs short is like clearing the plate before the final morsel has been relished. Using a sports analogy, Reilly says THAT three-year PhDs deny students their “final slam dunk”.

“You’ve got to go through a multi-year learning exercise. It’s gaining experience in how to think creatively and critically. It’s that last piece where it all comes together. And just when you’re about to apply it to a significant and challenging problem, we say, go graduate!”

Many doctoral students end up scarfing their PhDs like a picnic lunch under ominous rain clouds, completing their research projects after they secure their first postdoctoral positions – or trying to, at any rate. “Whoever’s paying you as a postdoc has to be really sympathetic,” Reilly says. “Most aren’t.”

Under the Wellcome Trust’s approach, students are given time to digest their doctorates. The first year is typically devoted to taught courses and laboratory rotations, although that isn’t set in stone. In the US, where PhDs take at least five years, the first two are the equivalent of coursework master’s studies.

Reilly says that too many of the “best and brightest” try to run before they can walk, accelerating through university and graduating as soon as possible, only to find themselves lumbered with expectations that they can’t fulfil. Either they don’t have the maturity, or they’ve skipped over critical areas of their disciplines and lack the requisite depth of knowledge – a bit like meat-lovers who spend too much time at the steakhouse and don’t get enough potassium.

Academics are judged on when they finished their PhDs, not when they started. As soon as they graduate, the meter is ticking, like a maître d’ drumming his fingers as he waits for a table to vacate. Prospects of securing early career positions hinge on publication track records, so students should delay graduating as long as possible while they amass papers.

Galloping through PhDs is not in their interests. Being a student is a luxury that should be savoured. “It means you get to ask questions, make mistakes and say ‘I don’t know’,” Reilly says. “Why would you want to graduate as soon as possible, so people stop treating you like a student?”

Responding to Reilly’s comments, a THE reader points out that many doctoral students end up in finance or IT jobs where three to four years’ study is ample. “It is hard enough to get any UK students to take PhDs now, so lengthening the period would only make matters worse.”

The reader is right. Mandating longer PhDs would be like restaurants dragging out their service when patrons are anxious to get to the cinema. But it’s horses for courses. Like good restaurants, universities should make available a drawn-out eating experience that lingers on the palette for hours, or – in this case – years.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

It depends on situation and perspective, today UK universities receive many international students, and most of them are depend on scholarships, both from UK and their home countries. Some international students are worry about "time" and "money", if their study will spent little bit longer abroad, means a lot of money to be allocated. Meanwhile their grant only covers 3 up to 4 years, if they can not finish their study on time, they have to use their own money to pay tuition fee. Maybe not all will experience situation like this, but several research said that many PhD student were suffer from stress, anxiety and economic problem.

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