Why I ...believe the PhD is in danger of becoming a joke

July 19, 2002

British academics have traditionally prided themselves on the academic rigour of their research and their ability to produce useful outcomes in terms of completed projects and publications. Their hard work and discipline has generated intellectual credibility for the PhD and a degree of public respect in academia and beyond for the title of doctor of philosophy. However, this solid foundation is being undermined by a tendency to award PhDs to candidates who have not published nor been subjected to truly independent appraisal.

The expansion in tertiary education that we have witnessed in recent years has undoubtedly increased access to higher education. The view is often put forward that the expansion has occurred at the expense of academic standards. Whether this is true is often the subject of debate, but what has become clear to many in academia is that market forces and academic excellence often make uncomfortable bedfellows. When the free market operates on campus, there are innumerable opportunities for academic standards to be lowered. It is not that the academics involved wish this to occur or are in any way corrupt, but human nature can lead the best of us along paths of convenience rather than rigour. This is why PhDs are becoming devalued and why UK academia is at the top of a slippery slope that leads to a loss of credibility for anyone using the title "Dr" unless they have studied medicine. In short, the PhD is in danger of becoming a joke.

This is, however, occurring in a culture where academics are constantly exposed to a system of impartial moderation that aims to ensure quality - specifically refereeing. When we submit an article to a journal, we cannot claim publication, and therefore any credit, until the manuscript has been examined in detail by a referee. This person is an expert in the field and someone we do not know. Therefore, it is impossible for us to exert an influence on the outcome - either consciously or unconsciously. Applying this system to obtaining a PhD provides a way for us to save the academic doctorate. The most obvious method for achieving this is to insist on the publication of, say, six refereed papers by a candidate before their thesis can be considered for the award of PhD.

Another thing that undermines the PhD is nagging doubts about a PhD supervisor who is keen to see his student pass and has convinced his friend from university X to act as external examiner (with a generous amount of nodding and winking occurring during the viva). This type of situation can be easily eliminated by selecting the examiner in the same way as referees are selected by journals - independently and impartially. At the same time, the candidate could be required to sit two oral exams - one of which would be open to the public. In this way transparency, and therefore the academic credibility of the PhD award system, would be assured.

Finally, there is debate about the possibility of introducing a PhD with taught elements, and the fashion for moving from one in-depth research investigation to a combination of more wide-ranging (but more superficial) projects. Does this not seem to go against what has been traditionally understood by UK academics and professionals to be the main characteristics of a PhD student - that is, a motivated and self-directed individual capable of in-depth analysis, with the tenacity to see a lengthy and difficult project through to a successful conclusion?

These views may seem hardline. However, quality is as difficult to maintain as it is to attain. In the move towards an expanded market-driven campus, there is a danger that the PhD degree will be subject to the kind of academic inflation that involves the printing of more certificates and a reduction in their overall value.

Lyndon Smith, senior lecturer faculty of computing, engineering and mathematical sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol.


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Reader's comments (2)

As I work my way through the various levels, I keep hoping that this malaise that has taken hold in education only goes so far up but I'm now at Masters level and I can still see that market forces are the over riding concern of 6th form schools, colleges and universities and not the academic excellence of their students. Unfortunately It has all become about money. Students arn't allowed to fail, that would mean sliding down the leaderboard and therefore less income for the establishment. I have seen students barely capable of writing an essay (or spelling 'essay' for that matter) gain a 2:1 degree. Its not just PHD's that are at risk but the whole educational system.
I have elsewhere made the point that there is now something of an elephant in the various rooms where, and when, academics meet. A fellow academic writing in THE insisted on her title of Dr being clearly visible on her conference badge. If it wasn't she would add it herself. Nothing wrong with that I suppose; but her claim that the title correctly signifies an 'expert' in the field is now generally rather more difficult to accept. My point would be that the once hallowed qualification which was awarded to those genuinely adding something to knowledge, and which did in fact signify some authority over and within a discipline, has fallen into disrepute. I suggested that we now have something of an unofficial Taxonomy for PhDs which is determined by, inter alia; in what, for how long, where and with whom. The title Dr frankly, and sadly, no longer cuts it. There are a significant number PhDs in my Faculty who have been awarded a Pedagogic PhD. Such an award adds nothing to the discipline based pursuits of our students or indeed their colleagues. Such an award also gives the students the impression that their Lecturer has expertise in that discipline; whereas it's only an illusion. Other awards have been borne out 'arrangements' which are altogether far too cosy between student, supervisor and external examiner; so called 'in house' PhDs ... literally. It is quite common now for a colleague to supervise another. When that colleague happens to be an ex student it's almost a seamless ... if lengthy; career path. Clearly something needs to be done; but any protagonist for change on the grounds of falling standards will need to be assured of their political nous. There are going to be a great many wounded and indignant academics defending themselves.