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Sunday, May 24, 2015

PhD: is the doctoral thesis obsolete? by Paul Jump

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"Should the foundations of a 21st-century academic career still be built on the traditional model?" according to Paul Jump, senior science and research reporter as well as deputy features and opinions editor.
Photo: Times Higher Education

Earlier this year, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, examined a PhD candidate at Imperial College London. Although the student “sailed through”, Farrar was struck by how much time he had spent writing up his thesis compared with carrying out experiments.

“Is it time to look at the PhD thesis?” he wondered aloud on Twitter. “What is best for candidate and research in the 21st century?”

He estimates that the average doctoral student spends about six months of their four-year programme writing their thesis, and another three “waiting for it to be examined”.

“That is just not a wise balance,” he says – particularly when even examiners rarely have the time to “wade through” theses in their entirety.

“An awful lot is going unused and unread,” he says. “Is this really appropriate for the modern world? Communication within the science world and with the public is becoming shorter and snappier, yet our PhDs still seem to be stuck in the 1960s.”

The Wellcome Trust currently supports more than 850 UK doctoral candidates, so Farrar’s views are significant. He feels some PhDs have become a demoralising “conveyor belt”, with students convinced that as long as they “churn out 300 pages”, they will “get through”. Hence, theses become bloated with “page after page of methods”, along the lines of: “I pipetted 2.5ml of this enzyme into that tube.”

Photo: Philip Moriarty
Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, also worries about wasted effort. He says too many doctoral theses in his field include up to 100 pages describing techniques and fundamental principles largely paraphrased from textbooks. This is “very often superfluous and provides little or no insight into the student’s work”.

He would much prefer to see theses’ introductory sections “written along the lines of a good review article, where the student does a critical appraisal of the state of the field”.

But what about going further and abolishing the thesis entirely, and instead allowing students to submit a bundle of papers? For several decades most UK universities have offered doctorates “by prior publication”, but these are usually confined to staff and (sometimes) former students who have already published a substantial body of work that adds up to a unique contribution to knowledge. However, according to The Role of Publications and Other Artefacts in Submissions for the UK PhD, a report published earlier this year by the UK Council for Graduate Education, 72 per cent of 50 UK universities surveyed sometimes saw published papers incorporated into PhD submissions – although it was the norm in just 2 per cent of cases and was rare or absent in 83 per cent. A spokeswoman for Imperial says that the institution “does not currently accept a series of papers for submission as a thesis, although we are continuing to explore the possibility of accepting alternative PhD thesis formats”.

The “integrated format”, as the UKCGE calls it, is already common in many European countries, for which reason it is sometimes known as the “continental model”. And according to Margaret Kiley, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, many higher education institutions Down Under offer something similar. The UKCGE report attributes the integrated format’s rise to growing pressure on students, particularly in the sciences, to publish their findings prior to graduation – not least so that they can compete for postdoctoral positions in an increasingly international job market. Some universities also want to eliminate the “opportunity cost to the institution if the PhD regulations forced candidates to rewrite…pre-published material”.

However, there is also a “general consensus” that the bundle of papers submitted “needs to be coherent and to demonstrate explicitly the candidate’s individual contribution to knowledge”. The UKCGE itself, in a statement issued to Times Higher Education, notes that examiners “need to be confident that the research has been conducted soundly, securely, ethically and with a robust methodology. Therefore it is necessary for a PhD thesis to contain more information than other types of publication that researchers might produce later in their careers when they become more established. Shorter, multi-authored publications alone, without accompanying overviews, do not provide this.”
Photo: Bruce Christianson
The report’s lead author, Bruce Christianson, professor of informatics at the University of Hertfordshire, says that universities typically require students to append an introduction, setting out the context in which the papers fit, and a critical summary at the end, bringing all the strands together. Despite all that, he estimates that the amount of material candidates have to write from scratch under the integrated format is about a fifth of that required for a traditional thesis.

Additional resources

The task of completing a PhD is hugely rewarding for many, but it can also be immensely arduous and sometimes even a risk to the candidate’s health.

Source: Times Higher Education

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Ryan Tracey said...

This is very thought provoking, and healthy to think about.

I've always been a little suspicious of the traditional PhD thesis format, given it takes so long to do and appears to favour volume over quality. I realise this is unfair, of course, but perception is reality.

Another angle under increasing consideration is the online doctorate, for example:

Whatever the solution (if indeed there is one), it's important we keep asking the awkward questions.

Helge Scherlund said...

Hi Ryan Tracey,

Thank you for dropping by.
I appreciate your comment.