In this article, we shall discuss the nature of a PhD program. We shall consider the inevitably different aims that the students, the supervisors and the examiners bring to it.
Aims of students
There are many reasons why people decide to work towards a PhD. One of the most common aims at the beginning is the wish to make a significant contribution to the chosen field. In these cases students have become particularly interested in a topic during the course of their undergraduate degrees (or perhaps while working in their profession) and wish to add something to the current state of knowledge. For example, Adam, who after graduating in architecture, had spent some years both teaching and working as an architect, explained why he had returned to university in the following way:
I wanted to do more theoretical work as my interests were with the value problems in designing a building. How does the architect make decisions about features that will affect the behaviour of those using the building without ever having a consultation with the prospective users? This interest was an extension of my direction as an undergraduate and my observations during my working career. I saw it as a serious problem and a major issue in professional practice.
Greg, a history student, said he wanted to gain a PhD because:
It was an opportunity to continue research I had started for my MA. To me a PhD means that the candidate has made some new contribution to his field and that’s really what I want to do. Up until now I’ve never really considered doing the next degree until I had almost finished the previous one. I don’t need the PhD for my work – it might even be a disadvantage.
Greg’s sentiments are not echoed by all research students, as another important aim for many postgraduates is to enhance career opportunities and future earning capacity through possession of the PhD degree. Some decide on this course of action when considering plans for the future. Others, like Freddy, who was studying industrial chemistry, decide on research when they find it more difficult than they had expected to get a job in industry straight from university:
The head of department where I did my first degree offered me a research post, so I agreed after he gave me an outline of the research area.
There are other career reasons for wanting to take a doctorate. Some students find that they are being called ‘Dr’ by people coming in to the laboratory or hospital department where they work and feel guilty at accepting the title they have not yet achieved. Others feel that relationships with their medical colleagues may be easier if they too have the title. Some are embarrassed at being alone in their academic group without a title and succumb to their feelings of peer pressure in order to conform.
Another reason for undertaking a research degree after doing well at undergraduate level is simply taking up the offer of a studentship as a form of employment and without having any real career aims. All of these motives are far removed from the idealistic view of the PhD student as somebody dedicated to advancing knowledge and potentially worthy of becoming an undisputed expert in a given field.
These diverse aims of students do not remain the same throughout the period of registration for the higher degree, however – not even for those students who do start because of the intrinsic satisfaction of actually doing research and because of their interest in the work for its own sake.
The following description of his decision to work for the PhD was given by Bradley, who was studying in the English department of a university:
I couldn’t think of a more fulfilling or pleasurable way of spending my time. It’s almost instinctive. I haven’t weighed up the pros and cons, it was an emotional decision really.
All these students, together with very many more enthusiastic new recruits, change their way of talking about their PhD as the years of learning to do research and become a full professional pass by. Towards the end their aims become narrower: simply to reach the goal of the PhD – ‘got to get it’ – or else to complete an unfinished task – ‘must finish’.
It is important that research students eventually realize that it is determination and application, rather than brilliance, that are needed. The sooner you learn this the better. Conducting a piece of research to a successful conclusion is a job of work that has to be done just like any other job of work. Also, just like any other job of work, an important objective should be to make a success of what you have set out to do.
Aims of supervisors
In the same way that students begin a PhD for a variety of different reasons, so too supervisors undertake supervision with different aims in mind. There are those who wish to add to their reputation for having a large number of successful research students of high calibre. With each additional success their own professional status is raised. Of course, the converse is also true: it is possible for academics to go down in the estimation of their peers by having a succession of students who drop out, do work of poor quality or take an exceptional amount of time to complete their theses. But those supervisors who have one or more ex-research students who are now professors speak of the achievements of these graduates as though they were their own.
There are at least two kinds of supervisor. Some supervisors, mostly in the arts and social sciences, believe that postgraduates should be encouraged to become autonomous researchers. Others, mostly in science and technology, believe they should be encouraged to become extremely efficient research assistants. Some supervisors have not really thought about this matter specifically but nevertheless treat their research students in such a way that it is relatively simple to deduce which implicit theory of doctoral education and training they hold.
Some supervisors are dedicated to developing their favoured area of research by having several people exploring different, but related, problems. These people, again mostly in science and technology but with some in social science, aim to build centres of excellence around themselves which will attract visiting academics from other universities and other countries. In this way they are able to spend some time discussing their work with other specialists. They may also be able to arrange an occasional seminar given by a well-known expert. Students of these academics are likely to find that they are given small, well-defined problems that closely border the research problems being pursued by other researchers attached to their supervisor.
There are also those few senior academics who aim to become eligible for a Nobel prize or other senior honour. What this means for their students is that they will be treated as research assistants and expected to do the work set out for them by the professor, in the limited manner of a subordinate.
As well as those who wish to get the work done as speedily and efficiently as possible, there are those supervisors who are genuinely interested in producing more and better researchers. Typically in arts and social science, they are prepared to offer a service of supervision to research students in the same way as they offer a service of teaching to undergraduate students. What this means for students is that they will be expected to develop their own topics for research and to operate in a more individual manner. This approach gives more autonomy but entails a more restricted academic peer group.
Thus supervisors have many different reasons for agreeing to add to work already being undertaken by engaging in the supervision of research students. Not all of these aims are mutually exclusive. It is necessary, however, for students to discover which approach a prospective supervisor favours in order to evaluate the implications for what will be expected of them.
It is also important for new doctoral students to understand what is on offer. Would you wish to progress immediately towards becoming an autonomous researcher? Or would you prefer to approach that goal via the route of an effective research assistant? Supervisors too must become more perceptive about which type of researcher is best suited to help them further their own aims.
Of course, we realize that it will be difficult for you, as a beginning research student, to understand fully the implications of this discussion. It will be even more difficult to act on such considerations. Two things that you could do are: talk to other research students in the department about their experience of supervision, and introduce into the preliminary discussions with any potential supervisor an exploration of their preferred way of working with their students.
Aims of examiners
External examiners are academics from universities other than your own and are used to ensure that, within a given discipline, standards of quality for which the PhD degree is awarded are uniform across universities. Some examiners see the aims of the PhD to be a training for a career in research, some as an introduction to writing books, some as preparation for the academic life and some, as we have suggested, to become a fully rounded professional.
Whether examiners are more interested in the research, the thesis or the performance of the candidate in the oral examination, they are looking for a command of the subject area (or context) of the research, as well as the specific topic. PhD is awarded for an original contribution to knowledge. Yet, originality in the PhD is a complex concept which has not yet been adequately defined. Nevertheless, examiners need to be satisfied that the work has a degree of originality and that it is the genuine work of the candidate.
Examiners acquire reputations for their performance in this role. Some become known as difficult to please while others are prepared to take the supervisor’s evaluation of the work almost without question. Some examiners make the oral examination a real test of professional knowledge and exposition, while others allow it to be more of a relaxed conversation between friends.
The reputations that the examiners acquire do sometimes affect their selection, especially when it is left to the supervisor to choose. Some candidates find that their external examiners have been chosen on the basis of how highly their supervisors regard the students’ work. For example, if a supervisor thinks that a particular student will only just satisfy requirements, a less exacting examiner may be chosen. If, on the other hand, the supervisor considers the student’s work to be of considerable merit, a tough examiner is chosen and the student then has the advantage of being passed by somebody who adds prestige to the new PhD’s success. However, such a system is far from universal and can be extremely unpopular. Dr George, a supervisor who also has special responsibility for research students in his department said: ‘I’m against the practice of getting a lesser academic, or a friend, for a weaker student but I know it happens and it has happened here.’
Aims of universities and research councils
Government-funded research councils provide studentships for local full-time doctoral students in science and social science. In the past they have taken a fairly relaxed view in evaluating what happens after the studentship had been awarded, considering this a matter for the academic discretion of the particular department and supervisor involved, but this is no longer so.
The commonest way of not succeeding is to drop out. Very few people actually fail. The historically high drop-out rate of students has led the councils in the past to require universities to demonstrate that they have an effective student support system in place. They have issued guidelines on what is good practice in matters such as induction sessions for new students, research environments, supervisory arrangements and appeals and complaints procedures. They have issued league tables of completion rates and universities who do not perform satisfactorily run the risk of not receiving any allocation of research student grants. The universities can apply for reinstatement after a period when they have to demonstrate that their support arrangements have improved.
The effect of these policies has been to make academic institutions much more concerned to control the education which takes place during the PhD to ensure that it is of high quality. They have reviewed their supervisory practices, established doctoral programmes, strengthened the procedures for monitoring the progress of research students, and so on. Academics with overall departmental responsibility for doctoral students have been appointed. This book itself is an illustration of the way in which attempts are continually being made to make the doctoral educational process more effective.
The aim of research councils is to get a high proportion of full-time doctoral students to complete within four years, and universities work to bring this about. The criterion of a successful completion for these purposes is defined as: the submission of the thesis for first examination four years after registration as a full-time student. Any referral as a result of the examination is not taken into account.
From the student’s point of view the positive effects are that much more interest and care are being devoted to making the process work efficiently, and you should make sure that you get the benefits of these developments. A possible negative effect is that you may be forced to take a narrower view of your research than you might like in order to complete within the stated time. Always remember, though, that there will be opportunities for further research on related issues after you have obtained your PhD.
Mismatches and problems
Once we begin to see where the aims of the different groups involved with the PhD are not congruent, it is not too big a step to realize that certain conflicts are inherent in the system.
For example, where a student who wishes to develop an area of research and make a significant contribution to it is paired with a leading supervisor who is more interested in speedy problem-solving, both of them will inevitably feel frustrated. Diana in biochemistry started by looking for ‘the truth’ and spending a lot of time working on important experiments even though they would not form part of her thesis. At this stage Professor Drake, whose concern was focused on findings, showed little interest and tended to leave her alone for long periods. He became more interested in her work when she began ‘churning out results’. Once this happened, quite far into her registration period, she said: ‘My change of attitude means that instead of experimenting for the sake of getting answers I’m now experimenting in order to get graphs that can be published.’ This was more satisfying for him but less satisfying for her.
By contrast, where a student is more interested in obtaining answers and the leading supervisor wants to develop an area of research it will not be long before they both feel irritated with the situation. Such was the case of Freddy and Professor Forsdike:
I intend to tell the Prof. that he has to have very good justification for my working after 31 March. It has to be something vital and important. All the poisoning work was never in the original project outline and most of the additional experimental work he gives me is quite irrelevant to my thesis.
Here the supervisor is encouraging the student to go beyond the boundaries of his thesis problem and pursue the leads that result from the original experiments. The student, however, wants no more than to complete a bounded series of experiments and write them up for a PhD.
If a supervisor is interested in discussing new ideas and exploring untested areas but is responsible merely for ensuring that the student completes a thesis of the required standard in a reasonable amount of time, the work of supervision becomes less than satisfying. Mrs Briggs, a supervisor in the arts faculty of a university, was disenchanted with the university’s perception of what a PhD means now compared to the more relaxed and longer time scales before pressures for completion became the norm, but she was very much enjoying supervising a postgraduate of whom she said:
He’s always telling me things I don’t know and that’s exciting – except, of course, I can’t know whether the things he’s telling me are accurate. I try to make up to him for not being an ideal supervisor by giving him enthusiasm. He knows I think that he’s interesting. I don’t want to let him down – he’s such a very good research student. I introduce him to others in the field who are experts, and then he can approach them at any time he wishes for more specialist knowledge. He should finish the PhD in three years. He says it’s a life’s work, and I agree that it could easily be, but the PhD is not a life’s work and he must finish it quickly.
This supervisor is admitting that supervision can be of benefit to the supervisor herself, and this is quite commonly the case. Indeed, supervisors can expect their students to be able to introduce them to new developments within the field of their thesis topic, and equally they must accept that they are not the only source of academic knowledge and professional skill for the student. Another benefit to supervisors nowadays is to have the number of PhDs they have supervised to successful completion on their CVs.
These cases show the kinds of juggling that have to occur between defining the boundaries of the research and managing the time available for writing the thesis. Whether it is the student or the supervisor who takes the major responsibility for this does not alter the fact that decisions regarding what is appropriate, relevant and necessary have to be made throughout the student’s period of registration.
Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (5th ed., pp.30-37). McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
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