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Will PhDs become the new A level?


I have very mixed feelings about my former life as a PhD supervisor and examiner.  It’s a huge privilege to supervise a PhD, and each of my students did amazing and original work, going on to great things in academia or the arts. It’s a mutually rewarding experience – I learned a huge amount from all of them.

The English system is unique in that students are able to do PhDs which are pure research, unlike the continental and American equivalents which often have substantial taught elements. Sadly, the generous intellectual freedoms that are fundamental to the English concept are not immune to the vacuous bureaucratic rigour that passes for intellectual endeavour in higher education generally.  Students are increasingly required to take taught modules or to undertake research ‘training’ imposed on them by a bureaucratic structure which is desperately short on imagination and trust. As these become more conventional with standardised criteria and formats, the results become more predictable, often owing more to what the examiners are assumed to want rather than the unfettered creative research of the genuinely inspired. Instead of recognising that the student has become the expert in their topic, all too often examiners require the candidate to have written the thesis that they would themselves have written. This is especially true down among the inferiority complexes of second rank institutions where examiners are often overly pedantic in order to prove their academic credentials. It devalues the whole concept of the PhD, which sometimes seems little more than an extended taught MA – which itself has become little more than a glorified A level.

The first requirement of a supervisor or examiner is obviously having a PhD yourself, not just to understand the process, but to be able to empathise with students if you’re asked to examine.  The university I taught at is one of the very few where you aren’t required to have one (it’s also unique in giving professorships to staff with no significant publications, so maybe it just has a ‘light touch’ approach to the higher end of academia).  I found it really problematic though – it didn’t seem fair to me that some postgrads could be supervised or examined by staff members who hadn’t gone through the process themselves, and at least one of my students was disadvantaged by this.  There were three possible results once you’ve submitted: you either pass straight off (relatively rare in the liberal arts as everyone has typos they’ve overlooked), or you get minor corrections to do within two months (the most frequent outcome), or – horror of horrors – you’re given another year to get it right. Most of mine got through with minor corrections, but three of them had to do major corrections –  three of the most interesting and least inclined to play the academic game. All fell foul of the ‘guess what thesis is in the examiners’ heads’ syndrome, the academic equivalent of the worst sort of primary school teaching.  The problem with the 12 month sentence is that the thesis is no longer yours – it has to be completed to the specification of the examiners so you daren’t put a foot wrong or the whole thing goes down the tubes. In other words you’re writing the thesis they think you should have written (or would have written themselves). This is terribly depressing for both candidate and supervisor, and is something examiners rarely understand unless it happened to them.

My take on my academic and pastoral roles was largely the result of negative experiences in my own student days  – so  as an undergrad tutor I made sure the students got a lot more care than I had at Cambridge. And I had to resubmit my OU PhD thesis, so I know exactly what it’s like when it happens to you.  It’s the job of the examiners to put themselves into the head of the candidate, to empathise with their intellectual and conceptual endeavours. There are very few specific criteria for a typical UK PhD – in essence it has to be original and all your own work – and examiners who try to match the thesis to a list of imagined generic criteria are simply failing the system and bringing the whole process into disrepute. It explains why in certain disciplines (not often Music, thankfully) PhD theses are formulaic, uncreative and boring: a process to be got through so you can get your piece of paper at the end of it.  When I prepared a version of my thesis for publication the publishers specifically asked me to base it on the original version, as opposed to the one re-written for the examiners. So if you get major corrections, all is not lost – just don’t throw away the material you’ve given so much of your life to.

The other liberating characteristic of the traditional supervisor-student relationship in the UK is that it is one of mutual respect, not the master-client relationship so often seen in American and European institutions. Because you haven’t taught the students anything, and they’re not aiming to be some sort of updated version of you, the supervisor isn’t perceived as a kind of guru. You explore the topic together, with the supervisor rarely specifying  tasks for the student, but acting as a sounding board and giving advice where appropriate. It’s a wonderful, mutually creative system, and we should resist attempts to make a PhD some sort of generic paper qualification where students seek to anticipate what the examiners will say and write their theses accordingly. It’s research: you can’t teach it, and it’s creative: making everyone conform to a set of criteria is just plain wrong.

2 Responses to “Will PhDs become the new A level?”

  1. Thomas Schreiber says:

    Dear John, I’d just like to add an observation from my academic history (in Physics in Germany). Examining thesis work of your colleagues’ students ist one of the cheapest ways to give your academic peers a hard time. You describe the relationship with your PhD Students as a team setting. Rarely have I seen German Professors work together as a team (they’d rather look for collaboration oversees). The examiner has not been part of a successfull team, now he fights back for being excluded. For my habilitation, the staff was obliged to come to a common verdict as a team. So I arranged my worst critic to be the head of the comission. He didn’d want to fail as a team leader so they had to accept me. (Is that what you mean by playing the academic game?) All the best, Thomas

  2. John Potter says:

    Hi Thomas! It’s a sad fact that the way the practicalities of examining are dealt with can have an effect on the outcome at least as important as the work itself. You do have to play ‘the academic game’ – choose examiners that are likely to be sympathetic, and make sure your final draft is one they’ll appreciate. Even then, there’s a risk that you’ll get it wrong. It’s especially true in the arts as so much research has an aesthetic dimension that isn’t easily objectively quantifiable. It’s that risk that leads to cautious approaches to the final hurdle.

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