The PhD is amongst the last unreformed features of the educational landscape. It is a relic of the 19th Century German university system, surviving in an age in which the requirements for it have changed beyond all recognition. It is unsuited to preparing people for contemporary research and scholarship, and even more unsuited for preparing people for work in industry, commerce and the professions. It is built upon a model of study that can border on the exploitative. It is inimical to diversity. It is open to abuse, centred as it is around a narrow set of highly personalised relationships. It is, as it stands, difficult to assure and highly uneven in quality. All the incentives point students towards feeding the publication mill that in turn drives research assessment and league tables.
Above all, it is wasteful. Too many people who start, perfectly capable of making important contributions to the research and innovation ecosystem, fall by the wayside. Their effort and achievements are unrecognised.
My comments below reference the UK system that I know best, but clearly the Doctoral model, though it varies internationally, has many common features. I hope my observations are transferable.
Attempts to address the problems set out above, have largely foundered. Thus, in the UK, the Engineering Doctorate (EngD), conceived as a progressive approach built around portfolios of work, integrated internships and practical challenges, has been sidelined or subtly eroded. It has become, in effect, another award for the same narrow PhD. Cohort based Professional Doctorates, probably the most promising attempt to move beyond the PhD, are few and far between and under pressure to conform. The MPhil has become a synonym for a failed PhD. Part-time PhDs are extraordinarily difficult, given a format designed for concentrated full-time study.
The PhD is the gateway qualification to being an academic, controlling entry to desirable roles. It is almost as if those who sustain the system, and are its beneficiaries, have no stake in change. It is a failure of will, and also of imagination.
We need a new research workforce, comfortable with interdisciplinary working, able to adapt to emerging areas of knowledge, confident in a range of practical and experimental skills. We need professionals who are at home creating knowledge at the edge of practice and are expert consumers of evidence. We need innovators who can move effortlessly between research and its application. We need diversity in all its forms. There is the exciting prospect of creating greater fluidity of movement between practice and academic roles. And who would not argue that greater familiarity with research would be welcome in government and policy arenas.
It is not difficult to imagine alternatives to the existing system. The ‘thesis’ bears very little relationship to the ways in which scientific and engineering research, at least, are conducted. Even if it is arguable that producing a thesis in the accepted form delivers important skills, persistence and focus not least, it is hardly efficient. A varied portfolio would surely be a better basis for assessment and would deliver more added value to the broader research and innovation community. We also need to confront the reality that different research domains require different forms of Doctorate - research preparation for a humanities scholar, a life scientist and an engineer can and should be as different as the communities they serve.
We need a variety of study routes to meet with the different profiles. We need a corresponding variety of funding models that accommodate part-time, workplace based, integrated internships and so on. We need to reinforce the ‘Doctoral Colleges or Schools’ that exist within many institutions and get serious about rigorous quality assurance.
I suspect this iconoclasm will be unwelcome to many. We are all personally bound into the system, by our own formative experiences and our relationships with our students, current and former. We must however, be clear-sighted, the Doctoral system as it stands is broken, and we need to fix it.