:: PhD examining

Will PhDs become the new A level?

Thursday, August 16th, 2012


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.

PhDs: the case for the Defence

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Viva vs defence

Whenever I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about the European or American system of PhD Defence, they’ve often seemed to suggest that it’s close to a process of cruel and unusual punishment. The candidate (or Respondent) has to face an Opponent, who grills them on the thesis, usually in front of a panel of examiners who can also ask questions, and a public audience who can join in as well.  It may take a whole morning, in contrast  to the British viva voce system which is a chat between examiners and candidate in private that rarely lasts more than  a couple of hours.

Having now done both, I can report that the differences between the two systems are not as I imagined them to be. One of my fellow torturers in Sweden said he thought the British system was far more brutal as people often fail, whereas in the European system it’s very unusual for a candidate to fall at this final hurdle. He or she will have already have acquired the necessary credits, and the work will have been scrutinised by several authorities and already be published (and even on sale at the Defence). The Defence then becomes more a celebration of the work – a dialogue between Opponent and Respondent. In fact, Opponent isn’t really the right word (there’s probably something in Socrates that would give a less loaded idea). It’s still a big deal though, and celebratory parties are booked in advance on the assumption that there will indeed be something to celebrate.

The British system seems rather mean in comparison. My memories of examining are very mixed: I never encountered a student that wasn’t fully in command of their topic, which was more than could be said for some of my fellow examiners. You could always tell if one of the examiners hadn’t read the thesis properly by the length of their minor corrections list. On one occasion the internal examiner hadn’t even noticed that several footnotes were missing and he clearly had only a very superficial knowledge of the work. You couldn’t get away with  that in a public defence – which is as much a test of the examiner as the candidate. And in most British universities they only grudgingly award the degree – it’s almost always subject to minor corrections at best  (whereas in the European system all that stuff”s sorted in advance).  And in the case of major corrections  I’ve even known examiners change the rules and require students to make corrections that went directly contrary to the research findings and methodology, having completely failed to understand the research itself. Again, that would be impossible in a public Defence.

Both systems have their weaknesses of course,  and I can’t really comment on the deficiencies of the European system after only one experience (which was a remarkably successful event). But my  Scandinavian opposite numbers were very happy with their system, reckoning that it was fair to the candidate and a proper climax to the student’s research. I only had that feeling about fifty percent of the time with the English system. The one obvious weakness in the Scandinavian system is that by publishing the thesis in advance you tend to get a rather long list of adenda, and it misses the opportunity to reflect something of the ‘Defence’ itself. These are proper typeset publications, incidentally, not the rather home-made-looking creations that are UK PhD theses.


Performance as Research

I’ve always had a problem with the idea of performance as research. They don’t seem at all the same thing to me. One of the consequences of the octopus-like reach of education everywhere in the West has been the ‘academicisation’ of  performance – ie taking a subjective, creative activity and making it part of the ‘objective’ and disciplined academic curriculum. It’s fair enough for performance to be incorporated into the system somehow as that’s how most of us experience music, but it sits every uncomfortably with conventional academic forms of measurement. No one goes to a concert with  a list of ‘performance criteria’ in their head, and it’s not easy to estimate the research quotient in  performance of Schubert songs or Messiah. Was that a 63% Müllerlied or a 65? And what’s the difference? Doctoral studies are particularly at risk from the subjective/objective compromise, and most UK universities have some sort of system whereby a performance (or performances) is somehow justified by a research element. This is really performance and research, and very rarely performance as research. The creative act isn’t considered sufficiently ‘academic’ in itself – and in any case, how would you be able to measure it? Universities might become like art colleges (which produced some of the greatest and least academic musicians of the late 20th century, of course).


The PhD for which I was the Opponent at the University of Gothenburg was a genuine example of performance as research. It was an artwork in itself, with the necessary academic apparatus ingeniously incorporated into it in the form of dialogues with the sources and multiple layers of commentary. It took the form of a written document and a film, and the Defence was the ideal forum in which the complex concepts that formed the intellectual underpinning of the work could be examined. Not only was the dialogue between Opponent and Respondent a kind of performance in itself, but the questions of the examining board were also enlightening and supportive of the whole project. Most surprising (for me) were the questions from the audience. I found myself wondering where on earth you’d find such a high powered,  interested and informed audience back home. That’s without even beginning to imagine the whole thing happening in a foreign language.


So…if you’re a student thinking about doing a performance PhD in the UK, think about going to Europe. Think too about an environment where you meet fellow scholars and performers from all over the world who will open your eyes to things you’ve never thought of. And think about fees: in most EU countries there aren’t any…


The Academy of Music & Drama at the University of Gothenburg brings together a huge range of disciplines from music and theatre to photography and film, and their idea of the creative process and its relationship to academic study is a very sophisticated one. Elisabeth Belgrano’s thesis and film can be seen here.