PhD: Has the quality dropped? If so, who’s “to blame”?

mfIRNyuThis is rather concerning (but not particularly surprising, as we’ve heard all those complaints about GCSE, A-Level, degree level standards dropping, etc.) re PhD doctorates. Really, by the time you sit the viva, you should know that your work is ready to pass, and that your job in the viva is to demonstrate that you actually wrote it (although others will still see it as a test) … and as I hope to take on a PhD student before too long:

Our experience does not lead us to criticise any particular system of examination or type of thesis. However, it does raise serious issues about the quality of work submitted for the PhD degree (or its equivalent) and the standards employed to judge such work.

To cut to the chase, a significant number of the theses we have examined did not deserve to pass – at least, not in the form in which they were submitted. One of us has examined six doctoral theses in the past year and believes that not one of them was worthy of the degree. Yet he had the means at his disposal to fail only two of them. Administrative conventions and examination procedures, not to mention social pressures, simply did not allow the possibility of failure.

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PhD Vivas

I’ve only ever sat a PhD viva, and not yet supervised a PhD, or sat in on a viva, but I do remember my own experiences, so great story in Times Higher this week:

In my limited experience, it is not the personal dimension of relationships that can fail the PhD candidate, but their very impersonality. My field of business and management studies is vast and fragmented. Some of us build careers within a sub-paradigm of broadly agreed standards, while many of us work across multiple paradigms and areas. We cannot rely on a tacit consensus about standards to ameliorate the potential for disasters on viva day. The external examiner, and often the internal examiner too, have no knowledge of the candidate, no loyalty towards the supervisor, and no investment in the institution. Many would say that is the way it is supposed to be. The work is engaged with as if it were an anonymous journal article or a grant application.

The problem is that examining a PhD thesis is not like reviewing a journal article. The PhD candidate has been through three years or more of a programme for which they’ve paid huge fees. Their supervisor has deemed their work to be worthy of examination, notwithstanding its imperfections. In the UK, the candidate is typically faced with a judgement that says: “You thought today would mark the end of the course that has almost bankrupted you, has dominated your life for years, and will determine your future. Wrong! You now have to do another three/six/18 months of extra work to correct the work you thought wasn’t really that bad.”

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