October 13, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
A few years ago I was ‘first opponent’ at a PhD defence in Norway. The procedure of the viva voce exam was very different from the UK. The candidate was to give a public lecture and then I and another opponent had to engage him in a protracted debate, all in front of a sizeable audience of family, friends, academics and anyone who wanted to come in off the streets. Following the award of the degree we moved on to a celebration banquet at which a toastmaster guided us through countless speeches, music and song, and a warm glow of love and togetherness gradually united the whole room. It seemed like a wedding reception, I remarked to my neighbour. No, I was assured. It is far more important than that. This is once in a lifetime. Anyone can get married but this is a real achievement – one the biggest of all – and should be recognised appropriately.
This week I have been thinking of the PhD again. I was guest at a special degree ceremony exclusively for the conferment of doctoral degrees at which the title of each PhD was displayed, the names of the supervisors were read out and again there were speeches and music. It made me very keen to find ways we might celebrate the PhD more in my own faculty back home.
The PhD is the highest degree that a university may award. Viewed pragmatically, it is a simple professional qualification that has become the standard route for those considering an academic career. Symbolically, however, it is so much more. It marks the transition from student to independent scholar. It is a rite of passage. In the past, some viewed it as their life’s work and would spend years developing their magnum opus. It is not quite that anymore but it is still arguably the most significant piece of work an academic may produce, even one who goes on to write several successful books.
It is during the PhD that one learns the key skills of being a researcher. One must discover a topic in which new work is required, explain its importance, formulate one’s own hypothesis and demonstrate that it has been adequately tested – usually successfully. One has to discover one’s own list of essential readings and show that no one else has drawn exactly the same conclusions on the same problem. In almost all cases, it is with the PhD that a candidate for the first time generates new knowledge. My experience is that work on the PhD becomes all-consuming for the student. Many personal sacrifices are involved.
I have often told friends that I have never worked as hard in my life as the final year of my PhD. But my viva was held in an anonymous room with just me, my two examiners, and afterwards I took the bus home, had a cup of tea, and quietly watched TV. I don’t think I realised the importance of the occasion. Without that degree, none of the opportunities that came my way since would have been open to me. It was a day that changed my life. I see now that the successful PhD is the biggest cause for celebration and I need to make sure henceforth that each new PhD awarded in my faculty is recognised accordingly. To anyone currently struggling to complete their PhD, I wish good luck, every encouragement and assurance that the effort and sacrifice really is worth it.
My colleague at Nottingham Pat Thomson works on academic writing and has a blog, Patter, that often addresses PhD thesis writing.
This is really important, Stephen. I’m glad that you will do that. In the US we are perhaps less restrained than in the UK about making a fuss, but even so we do not celebrate academic achievements enough I don’t think. The PhD is huge. But for many people, anyway – certainly I’m in this category – subsequent achievements may seem, ahead of time, and even afterward, equally unfathomable. One of the things that external celebration does is mark the occasion for it as real. “Look what you made in school today! (Or in the last x number of months or years!)” Some people think that even announcing that one has completed something amounts to “bragging” or “boasting.” I think that this sentiment is telling. Academia, even more than some other professions, is populated by people who are so very, very, painfully insecure, in the end. Other people’s successes are therefore experienced by many as an indicator of their own inadequacies. The other form that this kind of profound insecurity can take is that departments care about successes, may even be preoccupied with them — but only insofar as they are instruments to improve the dept.’s “ranking” relative to some professional marker to which, inexplicably, they give genuine credence. I think that finding ways to celebrate and support people around one actualizing their abilities – their God-given gifts, for those who are inclined to see it that way – ranging from major, major achievements such as earning a PhD, to publishing books, to having articles accepted to being honored by others, and doing so (i.e., celebrating and supporting these things) for the right reasons – not love of reputation, but love of the person, and of the activity in question – I think that it’s something like a moral obligation, actually. It is Good that you are in a position to be a leader in this regard.
Can’t fix typos. I have no idea why there is “around one” between “people” and “actualizing.” It must be that I hit those keys, but I cannot imagine why!
You are right, Ruth. Celebration of an achievement can often make others feel bad and indeed be used for that very goal. I wonder if the PhD is an exception to this, though. I certainly feel very happy for any successful PhD regardless of institution and subject area. I think the personal achievement and self-realisation is very authentic and always deserved.
As a frequent participant in those Norwegian events, and as one who had a PhD defense with only a committee present, I think you’ve touched quite eloquently on the importance of ceremony, of marking passage, and of the PhD itself. Very nicely done.
Just attended my capping ceremony last week, at considerable expense, travelled to another country with three of my family. There was not a single person from my department that I knew. Sad.
A PhD should be celebrated!
“A rush to publish is hampering PhD education”
(Translated from the Swedish daily “Dagens Nyheter”, 2013-06-22 00:05. Link to original text http://www.dn.se/debatt/bradskan-att-publicera-hammar-forskarutbildning/ )
Knowledge is the most important issue. PhD education in Sweden needs improvement. Today, too much emphasis is given on publication of articles, which often are published in some journals of low quality. The most important objective should be what the PhD students learn during their training, and not what they publish, writes Md. Shahidul Islam, an associate professor and a senior consultant.
Undergraduate education in the Swedish schools has been much debated recently, and now it is timely to start debating the PhD education with the same enthusiasm. The PhD education in Sweden needs modernization to make us competitive at the international level.
It is not sufficient to inject extra money only. Many researchers around the world, including many Nobel laureates, made their groundbreaking discoveries with limited resources. To produce good scientists, we need to focus on what the PhD students learn during their training, and not on that what they publish.
As a rule, each Swedish PhD thesis consists of from two to four papers published in some scientific journals. In the published papers the student´s name usually appears as the main author, but sometimes as a co-author, where the contribution of the student to the paper becomes difficult to evaluate. Also, often the same paper is included in several PhD theses.
The requirement that the PhD students should publish four papers during four years leads to a choice to publish anything that can be published in journals of low quality. The data for a good and long paper are often divided into two, to increase the number of papers in the thesis. This strategy helps mainly the PhD supervisors, who need to show high productivity in their research to get new research grants.
Also note that one will publish only what is considered to be publishable, that is the results, which are positive and have led to a publishable discovery. More than 90 percent of the results are considered negative, and therefore, not publishable, and are never included in the thesis. That the prospective researchers learn during their education to select out a large part of their results, tells a lot about the quality of the PhD education. The rush to publish also makes it impossible to submit eventual patent applications.
While thesis defense in other countries are examinations, in Sweden and other Nordic
countries it looks rather like a show, directed in advance. During a public defense in Sweden, the opponent asks questions to the PhD student for about an hour, and this occurs in front of hundreds of audience, including often the friends and the relatives of the student coming with flower bouquets.
The supervisor often takes a large role during the thesis defense. The opponent is selected by the supervisor and the opponent knows through the supervisor which questions are appropriate ask. And it is not the opponent who has the power to make the student pass or fail; it is the examination board that has that power.
The examination board consists of selected members belonging to the supervisor´s circle of friends or networks. A prevailing culture in the PhD education is that no one should fail, and that everybody should help out. As a rule, 100 percent of the PhD students pass. In Sweden, even students of sixth grade are given rankings, but there is no ranking system for the PhD students; one either passes or fails.
Thesis work and examinations outside the Nordic countries look considerably different. In Oxford, for example, usually such a thesis consists of several hundred pages, and can weigh a couple of pounds. Published works in different journals are generally not included in the thesis because a thesis is considered to be a fresh product.
There are guidelines and structure for writing a thesis also in Oxford, but the PhD students do not have to comply with the journals’ requirements such as maximum number of words and style. Rather, they can write what they wanted to explore, what they have actually done, why they have done so, and what they have discovered. One does not select out the negative results since all results are results.
The thesis defense, called “examination” is quite different at Oxford compared to that in Sweden. The PhD student sits in a room with two examiners, one external, often from another country, and an internal one, from the same university. The external examiner is responsible for the largest part of the examination, while the internal one looks after the administrative
formalities, takes care of the paper-works in consultation with the external examiner, and sometimes participates in the discussion.
The supervisor is not supposed to be present. Nobody lectures; instead there are only
questions and answers, and a deep and critical discussion.
During the examination, the PhD students note what they need to correct or add. The PhD students know that the thesis may not be approved at once, and that they may need to make additions to the thesis.
On one occasion, when I was an examiner at Oxford, I commented, for example, that it was not enough to take four images per second and it was necessary to improve the methods. Then the student picked up results of her experiments that she had done the day before the examination, where she managed to take 64 frames per second.
After three hours of examination, we recommended the university committee that her thesis could be approved after revising several things in the thesis, and after addition of the new results to the thesis as an attachment.
Nobody waits at Oxford with flowers or fizzy drinks outside the room. After the examination, everything goes on as during an ordinary working day. At Oxford, they have diffused both the thesis defense and the celebration after the thesis defense.
According to the 2011-2012 annual World University Rankings, Oxford is ranked as number one in clinical and preclinical medicine, and the best Swedish university, Karolinska Institutet, is ranked as number 20. To get into the top, we must change our PhD education in such a way that it will be more similar to that in the most successful universities in the world, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.
It is time to recognize that the primary purpose of the PhD education is not to produce doctors who knows how to publish papers, but to produce good scientists.
-Md. Shahidul Islam, Associate Professor, Karolinska Institutet
I can’t even imagine doing something in order to make someone feel bad — let alone celebrating an achievement of one’s own for that purpose. I’m serious. My mom said you aren’t allowed to try to make people feel bad. Didn’t everyone’s mom’s say that?