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Calling time on the long PhD

 

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Institutions that fail to hit submission targets stand to lose funding

By Harriet Swain
Thursday, 8 May 2008

Students used to get as long as they needed to complete their PhDs. But now universities are imposing submission targets. Is this the end for the next generation of original thinkers?

Hamish wants to do his in around three and a half years. Juliet is aiming for three – part-time. But Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics took 17 years over his, turning it into a book on the foreign relations of South Yemen two months before South Yemen merged with North Yemen and disappeared. Francis Crick had won a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA before he got his. And Max Perutz, the noted chemist, spent 20 years on his, thereby winning a Nobel Laureate.

The importance of deadlines

The length of time taken to complete a PhD has never been an exact science. It depends on the type of project undertaken, the time-management skills of the individual taking it, and the quality of the supervision. It can depend on the commitment of other members of a research team, on financial support, the state of equipment, luck, and outside events. But in recent years, the attitude that a PhD should take as long as it takes has changed. Now, university departments, funding organisations, and students themselves have begun to recognise the value of a deadline.

“There used to be a culture of never getting down to it and a bit of a culture of you have to spend six years doing it or it’s not a proper PhD,” says Alison Manwood, deputy director of the graduate school at King’s CollegeLondon, which was praised in a recent report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for its high completion rate (the number of full-time home and EU students qualifying within seven years). Over the past five years King’s has become more hardline about submission targets, while offering more support for those struggling to meet them. Other institutions have been doing the same, setting up graduate schools to offer support and training in research methods, publishing manuals explaining to students early on what will be expected of them, including the length of time taken to complete, and being more proactive in monitoring student progress.

The modern PhD

Part of this is down to new ideas of what a PhD is all about. “Over the past 10 years there has developed the view that a PhD is as much to do with research training as it is to do with producing a piece of research,” says Claire O’Malley, dean of the graduate school at the University of Nottingham, which has seen dropout rates and completion times fall and success rates rise in the past decade. “Although the research aspect is important it’s regarded as a project like any other project, that needs managing, rather than, as in the past, something that takes on a life of its own.” The change in attitude is also about concern for students.

Manwood says she has long been worried about penniless postgraduate students struggling to complete a thesis while trying to hold down a job to pay the bills. Often when she has written asking them either to submit or withdraw they have been grateful to have the weight of responsibility taken from them. As students increasingly begin a postgraduate degree heavily in debt, financial pressures on them have grown, as have the pressures on them to get a job when they finish – and to develop skills needed in the employment market. But another reason for the change is concern for the bottom line. The 1996 Harris report on postgraduate education argued that research students should only attract funding council grants in subject areas and institutions delivering excellence in research education.

Does being top of the league table really matter?

Completion rates were taken to be one measure of quality, and have therefore been monitored and made public by Hefce since 2005. The result is that institutions that fail to get their postgraduates to submit on time face not only being penalised directly by the funding councils but also potentially losing out in the lucrative postgraduate market. Students considering taking a postgraduate degree can now consult league tables showing the success rates of individual departments, and make their choices accordingly.

Last year’s tables showed that 78 per cent of students who started full-time PhDs in 1999/2000 had qualified by 2005/06. But this ranged from 26 per cent at Liverpool John Moores to 92 per cent at King’s. Meanwhile, the research councils have also begun to monitor completion rates more closely and refuse to make PhD awards in following years to departments that fail to meet their completion criteria. Add to this the fact that departments do not receive funding through the research assessment exercise for postgraduates who have failed to complete within four years and the financial incentives for speeding up the PhD process are clear. On the other hand, recent funding changes have actually lengthened the period of time for which postgraduate students can expect financial support. The 2002 Roberts review on skills and careers development for researchers revealed that PhD students were taking on average three and a half years to complete, but only receiving funding for three. It suggested that longer PhDs would allow for longer and more challenging projects, as well as transferable skills training. As a result, all research councils now offer support for up to four years.

The rest of the world

Pressure against making PhD programmes too speedy also comes from abroad. Increasing globalisation means that postgraduate timescales in this country have to make sense both for foreign students wanting to study in the UK and for UK students wanting to work abroad after they graduate, and overseas postgraduate programmes often run at a more leisurely pace.

In the United States, it is usual practice to spend the first year of graduate education building basic research skills, the second acting as a teaching assistant to a supervisor and choosing a PhD topic, and only then move on to researching the topic itself. In Europe, a thesis can take years to complete. One of the attractions for foreign students of studying for a PhD in the UK is the prospect of achieving a qualification relatively rapidly, but make it too rapid and the qualification becomes devalued. In any case, there are limits to how swiftly the kind of work expected in a PhD can be carried out.

Creating original research takes time

Ian Lyne, head of postgraduate postgraduate training and research career development at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, says many students underestimate how long it takes to make the conceptual shift from being taught about other people’s research to making a significant original contribution of their own. “Contributing something to the pool of human - knowledge is a remarkable thing to do,” he says. “To reach that stage you have to be entirely conversant with existing work in the area.”

Hamish Stewart, a first year full-time PhD student in physical chemistry at Nottingham University, says he works on his thesis eight hours a day, only pausing when equipment breaks down – something that has to be built into time calculations. He expects to finish in three and a half to four years but is only funded for three, even though he expects the final writing up part of his research to be similarly full-time. He argues that the process would be easier if he didn’t have to spend so much time taking training courses. He blames an attempt to standardise what PhDs are about and send PhD students off to seminars on research methods to be able to tick certain boxes. “That takes quite a few hours out of my life that would be better spent doing research,” he says.

Juliet Hassard, who is studying for a PhD in applied psychology at Nottingham, likes the new skills training; her main problem is finding the time to attend. But she is equally keen to push on as fast as possible with her PhD, aiming to submit in under four years even though she is nominally doing it part-time, because she wants a more secure academic post, and because she is self-funded. This rapid timescale is only allowed because her employer is the university, and her work is a research assistant is closely related to her thesis. “It would be fantastic if I could do it within three or four years and stay sane,” she says.

Potential pitfalls

But some argue that there are dangers for PhD students in becoming too hung up on timing. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says pressure to complete within a set time, and today’s emphasis on achieving qualifications, means that doing a PhD can become a conveyor belt activity, where the research itself may have its own rhythm. “You can force something through that meets the conventions but doesn’t add much to the person’s life, or anything to the subject,” he says.

Gina Wisker, author of the Postgraduate Research Handbook, says that many involved in postgraduate education worry that students may be being forced to learn and produce outcomes at the same rate and pace when learning styles and research trajectories are different. “In our desire to ensure completion and throughput we might be losing the next generation of real original thinkers – the Einsteins of tomorrow and even today.” But she also acknowledges that there are benefits in encouraging students to complete promptly, and in training them in how to do it. Stewart says much as he enjoys his research he does want it to end some time. “Three and a half to four years is a long, long time,” he says. “If I was given longer I don’t think I would take it. I want to progress in life.”

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I would like to correct two statements made at the beginning of this article. Max Perutz started his PhD with J.D.Bernal in 1936 and obtained his PhD 4 years later in 1940, not 20 years later as stated here. Francis Crick started a physics PhD in 1937 but was interrupted by the outbreak of WW2. He left the Admiralty research labs in 1947, re-trained in biology and started a PhD for a second time in 1950, supervised by Max Perutz. He co-authored the seminal paper on the structure of DNA in 1953 before obtaining his PhD in 1954, a good 8 years before being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Posted by Dr Steve Burston | 08.05.08, 14:56 GMT

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