What's up, Doc: Are too many students sailing through the British PhD?

By Rachel Pugh

Thursday 14 May 2009 00:00 BST

The first PowerPoint slide Professor Chris Park shows his second year PhD students at Lancaster University asks: "How do I know my work is of PhD quality?" The bald answer on the next one says: "You won't – until your work is examined."

Park – the director of Lancaster University's Graduate School – is one of very few academics prepared to admit that there are concerns about the quality of UK PhDs that badly need addressing. The facts are these: the number of people undertaking full-time doctoral studies has ballooned by 22 per cent to 16,900 between 1996/7 and 2004/5, and the increase in students coming from abroad has grown faster than the number of UK applicants.

In addition, the whole process of studying for a PhD has changed. No longer is a doctorate a form of monastic existence of indeterminate length granting only a few of the most brilliant students the opportunity to study alone in the hope of producing ground-breaking research. Courses have now been condensed to around four years in length and many include formal taught sections to help students with research methods and study skills.

Feed in the fact that there are no official national statistics on the number of students failing their PhDs or on those re-submitting their research, even though these are available for undergraduate degrees, and you are left with a volatile mix of fact and conjecture that starts to eat away at the credibility of the British PhD.

Until recently the PhD was the top qualification available in British universities. It was the preserve of the very few, and required students to contribute new knowledge in their subject area through research. Now there's a widespread perception that anyone can do one, whatever the subject.

"There are issues out there – there's no denying it," says Park. But allegations of declining standards are built on anecdote, because academics are not prepared to put their heads above the parapet and speak openly because of the damage it might do to the reputation of their institution.

"In the next two years we need to get closure on the question of whether standards of PhDs are slipping, because until we have, we are just shadow boxing," he says. "There's a danger of this discussion taking on a life of its own, because it taps into concerns being felt across the sector about the value of degrees generally."

Professor Susan Bassnett, pro vice chancellor at Warwick University, voices similar concerns. She saw an article by commentator Gloria Munday that reproduced a Chinese student's almost illiterate application for a doctorate. "That rang a few bells," she says.

There are weak students from abroad who apply with poorly formulated proposals for PhDs. There are also students who have been "ordered" by their governments to do a doctorate – backed by the money to pay for it – when they don't have the ability to complete one. "Many students come from cultures where they have no background in academic writing and this can make PhD writing very onerous indeed," she says.

Bassnett once spent 10 hours correcting a single chapter of a student's PhD, a large part of it for grammatical reasons, and says she never again wants "to see a piece of work as bad as that".

Warwick is setting out to double its number of PhDs by 2015, but Bassnett's view is that "the more people who have PhDs, the less value they have".

A major concern aired by many academics is the problem with funding. A growing number of PhD students are self-funded and part-time, which some believe does not necessarily attract the best students or lead to the best results.

Back in 2001 the British Academy, which promotes the humanities and social sciences, expressed concerns about the UK's failure to attract the best British students to take up PhDs in these subjects, arguing that student debt was the major deterrent.

Now the British Academy has just announced that language training and take-up at GCSE and beyond in secondary schools is inadequate to support the development of high-level graduate studies and academic research in the humanities and social sciences. Research in all subjects is becoming increasingly insular in outlook, because PhD students do not have language skills, or the time to acquire them.

Amid all the concerns, one unavoidable truth is that PhDs have changed. They are shorter as progress continues to bring the UK into the Bologna Process intended to standardise the doctorate (and other degrees) across Europe. Formal taught sections now make up the first year of many PhDs. There has also been the emergence of Professional PhDs, which enable people to study for qualifications of a doctoral standard while continuing to work. Another new trend is the PhD by practice, aimed at opening up the qualifications to professionals in the arts and media, who submit a large body of work plus commentary to gain the qualification.

Many believe that the changes are for the better. Professor John Hyatt, director of Miriad (the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design) at Manchester Metropolitan University, thinks the time constraints have brought much-needed efficiency: "In the old days, you spent two years wandering about in the subject before deciding on your research question. Now all our students know what they are doing before they start."

Quality has not suffered, he says, but rather the professionalism of students has improved; doctorates are faster and delivered to deadline. The PhD is no longer a route simply into academia but a way of producing human beings with well-tuned research skills and the ability to adapt them to a world facing many challenges, he thinks.

"What we are experiencing is a democratisation of education," he says. "And that may be at the root of the criticism of PhD standards. Not everyone wants a more open system."

Dr Janet Metcalfe, the head of Vitae, a national organisation championing the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes, feels that the changes to the PhD have improved it. Vitae runs courses for postgraduates, which 10 years ago would have been a "moan fest" with eight out of 10 having had bad experiences. That, she says, is no longer the case.

That point is difficult to substantiate, because PhD students themselves are reluctant to talk unless they are happy with their lot. Those who have complaints about their supervisors – the most-frequent problem encountered – do not want to express their views in case they damage their chance of completing their doctorate altogether.

John Feather, professor of library and information studies at Loughborough University, thinks that one way of improving the system is to move away from the single supervisor per student: "To make the doctorate depend on a personal relationship system is wrong."

Suzanne Vaughan, a first-year PhD student at Manchester University's Medical Research groups, is examining the reasons for under-achievement by ethnic minority students at medical school. She has two supervisors and an additional "adviser" she can talk to – which is unusual in Britain. She is clear that the system has been put in to protect the students.

Vaughan feels fortunate in being happy with her team and supervisors, but feels that prospective students should do some research on the university they intend to go to beforehand: "Find out what your supervisor is interested in and make sure there are no potential conflicts between your area and theirs. I treat my PhD as a job. I go in first thing every morning and sit at my desk and work until five o'clock."

Whether or not there has been a decline in the quality of the PhD is not clear, but one message comes over loud and clear: the doctorate is precious and vital to the academic system. "If there's going to be cutting-edge thinking there have got to be cutting-edge qualifications," says Bassnett.

Common complaints about the PhD that need addressing:

* Supervisors leave students too much to their own devices, don't look after them enough and don't give them enough feedback on their work. Postgraduates don't want them on our backs, but there is a basic level of support and critique that they believe they should offer.

* In the worst cases, postgraduates are not treated as equals in the research process. That can result in the supervisor taking over good research or not giving the guidance that the students need to make the research robust.

* There is no standardised marking of PhDs and there are no transparent methods of assessment. Thus anyone who fails is almost certain to say it's not fair, that the examiners are inadequate or that there are problems in the process. Universities automatically assume that appeals are based on bitterness rather than a justified claim.

* It is very difficult to fail a PhD. The universities are concerned mainly with collecting PhD fees and notching up PhD passes on their scorecard.

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