Has the doctoral thesis passed its sell-by date?

The first UK doctoral student was admitted to Oxford just over 100 years ago in 1917. While the PhD (DPhil in Oxford) was a new-fangled thing for Britain, it had been introduced in continental Europe more than 100 years previously, initially in Berlin and Paris. In the USA, Yale University awarded its first PhD in 1861.

Over the last 100 years, there have been considerable changes in the PhD, and an expansion in numbers. 27,370 postgraduate research degrees (most of which will have been doctorates) were awarded in the UK in 2015-16.

While the UK was late in adopting the PhD, it has been innovative about its delivery. The Roberts review in 2002 spawned the increase in skills training and the formation of Graduate Schools in most universities. In recent years the research councils and many research charities have made it a priority by forming doctoral training centres or partnerships, which have emphasised the importance of cohorts and networks, emphasising the development of broader skills and interdisciplinary understanding. The PhD has evolved and developed over time.

What would a modern thesis look like?

One aspect of the PhD has not changed. The thesis, as a document that describes and evaluates the student’s research, is essentially the same as when I wrote my thesis (or indeed my supervisor wrote hers). The advent of technology has had little impact, apart from making it cosmetically more attractive. I suggest that the thesis is in need of a major rethink as it is no longer fit for purpose.

The current thesis does not directly test many of the skills that we now see as important for a PhD student to develop. All doctoral students undertake skills development courses, and these are often compulsory for the student to progress. However, many of these skills cannot be demonstrated in the thesis (or indeed the accompanying oral examination, the ‘viva’). There is a danger that what is not assessed is not valued.

The thesis also consumes a vast amount of a student’s (and their supervisor’s) time. Many students think that they need 6 months to ‘write up’ or revise. A full-time PhD is meant to last 3 years – is it reasonable to devote half a year to produce the document that describes thirty months of research?

Forgotten texts

It might be worthwhile if the thesis was a useful document. But most theses are only ever read by the student, their supervisors and the examiners. Future students may read chunks of the thesis to understand how their predecessors did their research, and to get tips on where to find relevant literature. But I would hazard that 99% of STEM PhDs are never properly read once the degree is awarded. In fields like Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences, there appears to be a similar trend, to publish journal articles during the course of the programme, as opposed to the traditional PhD monograph published after the award of the doctorate.

It is also unlike anything that the students will write again. Scientists need to write papers, book chapters, grant applications, reports – but nothing of the length and form of a thesis. You only ever write a thesis once (“Thank God” some will say). Even if scientists do end up writing a book it will be very different from their thesis since it will almost certainly be deliberately targeted at a more general audience then the thesis was. Again the same holds true for scholars in other disciplines, where increasingly it is necessary for doctorates to be substantially revised before publishers will consider them for publication.

In some cases, theses can be useful. In one laboratory I worked in there was a tradition that postdocs would use their PhD thesis as part of the equipment needed for Southern Blotting, in the days that you had to apply a heavy weight to help the transfer of DNA onto a membrane!

A doctoral journal, e-thesis or portfolio?

So what is the solution? We need to be clear about what writing a thesis does achieve. When I was a student the time that I really ‘got on top’ of the literature was when I was writing up. I spent weeks in the library preparing my introduction, and by doing that I really learned how to use published literature to interrogate the subject. The thesis also forces a synoptic overview of research, rather than simply focussing on individual publications. It certainly prepared me for my viva – writing my thesis meant that I really understood the subject at a deeper level than writing my publications. It is for these reasons that I am not an immense fan of ‘PhD by published works’.

What is the alternative? There is an opportunity here to develop a new way of writing up a PhD which will be more innovative and in tune to future publishing needs, help students demonstrate what they have achieved and be a more useful document. We should think of the thesis as something that is written up over the period of the research, forming a portfolio of work (a doctoral journal) that can be assessed in the viva.

The doctoral journal would contain (or link to the repository site of) the primary data (and its analysis), collected and written up contemporaneously, associated with the methodology used to obtain the data. This can make the primary data available to other researchers, embedding open access data into the process of PhD research.

Additional material could also be included; reports, (including those that are part of the progression requirements), presentations (oral or poster) that had been given at conferences, and material that places the research in a wider context (for example, discussions relating to the commercial exploitation of the research or its societal impact), visual material, the records of performances or artistic events, and even potentially autobiographical details of the development of the student as a reflective researcher.

It would also be possible to upload evidence of courses taken. If a student had undertaken some teaching during their research (for example by co-supervising an undergraduate dissertation) then it would be possible to include that in the doctoral journal.

On top of the portfolio, it would be necessary for the student to perform an adequate literature review. This could be written in sections; as research evolves and moves in new directions then the literature could be read and critiqued appropriately. At the end of the research period, the students should provide a (short) synoptic overview of their research, drawing on the work that they have written up in their doctoral journal.

Outline schematic of a typical doctoral journal. The student would deposit their data, the materials and methods used to obtain it and its analysis as they carried out the experiments (blue boxes). They would also perform literature review as appropriate during their research. They would also store in their journal progress reports that they had undertaken, evidence of training (possibly including evaluation or reflective analysis) as well as material linking to their work, such as evidence of co-supervision of an undergraduate project, presentations and publications. At the end of their period of study, they would write a relatively short synoptic summary and discussion of their work.

Source: Andrew George

We already have the tools to trial this

Technically the development of a doctoral journal would be relatively simple. The software to upload and archive material in a secure form is readily available. There would need to be consensus around what the expectations of the examiners would be, and how much weight they wished to give to the various elements of the doctoral journal. There would also be differences between disciplines, in arts and humanities much research is done through the process of writing of the thesis, which is similar to a research monograph in scope.

On my bookshelf, there are 30 theses, bound in blue, purple and black (the colours that my universities chose to ordain for their covers). I am immensely proud of them, they give me strong memories of my students and a tangible sign of what they achieved in their time with me. However, the thesis should not be about fulfilling the psychological needs of ex-supervisors!

The development of a doctoral journal would prepare students better for the world of research, it would encourage and reward the acquisition of broader skills and understanding and it would be a more accurate record of the student’s achievements.

This blog draws on material discussed at the UUK conference on Research in Universities (5/12/17). I would like to thank participants at the conference and other colleagues for their constructive comments.

12 responses to “Has the doctoral thesis passed its sell-by date?

  1. Very interesting thoughts Andrew. What is your view on Professional Doctorates as part of this process?

  2. Dear Dr. Andrew

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am also a PhD student and I couldn’t agree more with you.

  3. Jonathan, i think this lends itself well to the Professional Doctorate, which often has a portfolio element to it. I also think it has potential for those disciplines that are not well served by the current paradigm of a linear thesis, those where the research is by its nature more iterative.

  4. My DPhil, some 125,000 words in length, was completed in 3 years and one month. It represented (if I may say so) an original contribution to knowledge and drew on sources no historian had previously used. Its writing incorporated and reflected a host of generic skills. It was subsequently published as a monograph. Can we leave it at that, and not fix something that isn’t broken?

  5. The thesis makes candidates put their arguments and evidence in order which is good training and important for examiners. The portfolio approach is common in other domains – and might be OK for Professional and Practice Based doctorates.
    I really don’t agree with ‘what is not assessed is not valued’. This is a cul de sac that secondary education has gone down to such an extent that students have lost the idea of learning and personal development for its own sake. We can and should expect a commitment to scholarship and development from young professionals.
    We do need to think how to make it digital and linked to data repositories but for the PhD, the highest formal educational level, the thesis is still the best mode.
    I sent a longer response to Andrew if anyone is interested.

  6. Geoffrey – the nature of what is needed is going to depend on the discipline. However, as David says below (regardless of whether a journal is a good idea) we should be going down a more digital route – there must be sources and interactive data that could enrich a history thesis. Andrew

  7. Thank you, David, for this and for your longer and considered response that you sent. It is crucial that the PhD education retains a synoptic overview of the research and I would be strongly opposed to anything that smacked of stringing together unconnected small bits of research. A critical part of a PhD is the production of a coherent thesis or argument.

    The student must also be responsible for their own development into an independent academic. It would not be helpful if PhD students felt the need to tick a series of predetermined boxes in order to get their degree.

  8. An intriguing notion! A PhD that contains a focused and rigorous research element with suitable critique, yet also addresses the body of work in a wider context, could, I believe, lead to a more “rounded” outcome. Whether the dust collected by the completed thesis in University library’s is reduced, may be doubtful, unless the title happens to be: “The Even More Special Theory of Relativity” !

  9. The thesis is a document that describes and evaluates the student’s research and is therefore fit for that very purpose. It excludes a considerable amount of irrelevant but factual material that might be otherwise classed as padding for the purpose of making the thesis appear to be more than it really is. Should any of the examiners of the thesis need to see laboratory books or other sources of research, they can request it. The examiners can thus satisfy themselves that the thesis has been written on the basis of genuine research. The student is then tested at the viva where the examiners can satisfy themselves that the thesis has indeed been written by that student. Writing a thesis is a daunting task, but changing the criteria for awarding a PhD is in my view is not a good idea. Universities in the UK need to be mindful that any changes might lead to a loss of reputation on the rigour and quality of research leading to the award of a PhD.
    The thesis has stood the test of time and therefore needs no changing. In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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