Who supervises the supervisors?

PhD students may not know whether they have been helped adequately and assessed fairly, writes Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Doctoral students rarely fail their degrees - but equally, few pass outright. Unlike elsewhere in education, where success or failure is normally black and white, research students face a grey area of revision and re-submission.

Doctoral students do not have set final examinations but submit their theses when they and their supervisors feel the paper is ready, normally after three to four years' study. There are up to five shades of results, which vary slightly between universities.

At the top end of the spectrum is the A grade, or pass resulting in an immediate PhD award. This is quite rare. Most candidates receive a B grade: the thesis merits a PhD, subject to minor changes. The candidate is normally given a list of these, and cannot graduate until the corrections have been made.

Students can also be asked to re-submit the thesis with more extensive changes. This means either re-writing the thesis, or carrying out additional research, usually within six to 12 months. As many as one in five PhD candidates receive this grade or recommendation. Below this, the thesis may be turned down for a PhD but merit an MSc or MPhil degree. Finally, a few students each year fail outright.

Assessing a doctoral or masters thesis is a far more personal matter than for undergraduate work, where papers are marked in bulk, mostly anonymously. For PhDs, the thesis is read by an internal and an external examiner - the former usually the student's own supervisor, the latter, a senior academic in the field from another institution.

Although the number of complaints about results is small, the National Postgraduate Committee believes that since the process can be quite subjective, universities need to have effective appeals mechanisms. Next week, the committee will publish draft guidelines, which it hopes will bring more consistency to the way institutions handle research degree appeals.

Each university has its own route to an appeal. At Lancaster, all cases are referred to a postgraduate review panel if the examiners recommend either no degree, or a lower degree than the candidate submitted for. At Umist, Manchester, an appeal can be made against any of the five grades, but the onus to appeal is firmly on the student.

The most common grounds for appeal are procedural or because of bias. This allows for appeals due to administrative errors in the examination, but also deficiencies in the assessment itself, perhaps where the completed thesis falls outside an external examiner's area of expertise.

There are also cases where a student feels that his or her result has been affected by the views of one of the examiners. This can be a problem where the research the student has carried out contradicts that examiner's own work.

To this, the NPC would like to add appeals on the grounds of inadequate supervision. This is already allowed at Liverpool University; at Lancaster, the review panel has "a general duty to satisfy itself that the student has been fairly treated".

Unfortunately for the student, the practical benefit of such an appeal is limited. In cases of procedural irregularities or bias, sending the thesis to another examiner normally solves the problem. Where the supervision was at fault and the thesis is not of PhD standard, the only option is to allow the student to re-submit it after further work with a different supervisor. The question is, who bears the cost of this extra work?

Clearly, it would be better to strengthen the complaints procedures for students during the course, so that difficulties can be resolved before submitting the thesis.

"The problem is that you know you are going to fail, but there are no mechanisms that exist until you have failed," explains Sarah Branson, welfare officer at Liverpool University Guild of Students. Students can complain to their head of department, but they may be wary of criticising senior academic colleagues.

Also, because doctoral students normally work alone, they may not have a yardstick for measuring the quality of their supervision. As the NPC's paper points out, "students are not always in a position to assess the competence of their supervision at an early stage, and so deficiencies may only come to light as a result of the examination." Raising students' awareness of the supervision they can expect will help.

As universities tighten the time limits on PhD submissions to meet government demands for better completion rates, the number of students failing or re-submitting for PhDs may increase. At Umist, PhDs now have to be handed in within a maximum of four years; previously, it was seven.

Supervision standards could also be threatened by rising postgraduate numbers and the demands of research excellence. "The problem with supervision is that institutions are under so much pressure to carry out research that students are marginalised," says David Herriott, education officer at Umist Union. "Even if they wanted to supervise more, they could not."

If he is right, effective appeals procedures will be vital to guarantee that research students receive the support they need.

`Guidelines on the Conduct of Research Degree Appeals' is available from the National Postgraduate Committee. For information, telephone 0115 978 9600.