What is a PhD? In a recent editorial, Martin Johnson (2000) reminds us that the PhD is rooted within American University education, originally being a narrowly defined method of ‘substantive research training for university career scientists’ (p. 511). He also makes the telling point that the number of people with a PhD qualification in the UK has grown exponentially in recent years. Johnson illuminates the increased bureaucracy surrounding the entire process of gaining this sought-after qualification, particularly in the newer universities. The growth, management and diversity of PhD studies throws into stark relief how the diploma disease is firmly established in our own profession, to the point where examining doctoral theses has become a ‘serial’ activity for people such as myself. Over the past few months I have been engaged in a lot of PhD thesis marking, giving rise to some speculation that increased completion rates are linked to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), quality audit and government attempts to speed up the overall completion rates of higher education degrees. There are advantages and disadvantages to marking a number of theses. Each one takes a considerable amount of time to read, particularly if they are of the longer variety, as highlighted by Johnson. Reading a thesis is not all there is to it; reflection is a necessary condition of the examining process, and getting into the candidate’s mind becomes an essential part of the process. Each thesis is different, highlighting the importance of keeping each as a separate entity inside one’s own mind, not getting one mixed up with the other. One of the advantages of marking at this level is the insight that it provides into current work in a given field. The process itself is intellectually stimulating and challenging. Whilst not all finished theses are ‘cutting edge’, most offer a deeply argued contemporary view of a particular aspect of nursing. There is one issue that always comes to mind when opening a newly-bound thesis. It is a question that I have yet to find answered: ‘What is a PhD thesis and when should it “pass”?’ While
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each university or college has different regulations for what a PhD should look like, there is still the absence of a yardstick against which appropriate success can be measured. Most universities merely outline the boundaries of the final document (‘should not exceed 100,000 words in length, excluding appendices’) or suggest that the work should ‘contribute to knowledge’. Neither of these types of parameters should be considered adequate in making what must be one of the most important marking decisions in the field of education. Careers depend upon such decisions. It is true that most universities, if not all, invite at least two people to examine a PhD thesis. It also seems true that there is often a considerable degree of concordance between each examiner. Even so, this hardly constitutes a rigorous or, dare I say it, scientific way of assessing the outcome of a usually lengthy research project. Given the pressing need to assure and demonstrate quality in higher education, it is an oddity that marking of what is likely to be, for many, the last piece of formally assessed work, is such a subjective, arbitrary process. It is of interest to me that even though all universities have an appeals procedure, should the candidate be unhappy with the process of the examination, the one feature they cannot appeal against is the examiners’ decision regarding their work. This is considered sacrosanct, being regarded as a matter of ‘professional judgement’ on the part of the examiners. Surely this must change? Perhaps it is time to set out a tentative but stipulative set of criteria for what constitutes a ‘pass’ at PhD level. It is acknowledged that such criteria could not be trialled on any given group of PhD candidates. Over time they would have to be reviewed and altered. The objective, overall, would be to produce some sort of standardization in quality and marking. Nor would the drawing up of such criteria be easier. How, for instance would one account for the different styles and approaches to research taken by various candidates? How could a substantially ‘arts’ thesis be compared with a
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substantially ‘scientific’ one? Could the criteria cover the marking of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods studies? I think that no one would want to claim that using such criteria would be foolproof. It would be a brave person who draws up the first set for discussion. However, if we want parity, equity and fairness across the professions, we must attempt to quantify in some way what it is we do when claiming that a PhD thesis has reached a ‘pass’ standard. It is likely that the issue will become even more pressing as we see the development of more ‘taught’ and clinical doctorates.
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It is interesting to note that various bodies have tried to define to define standards up to Masters level. We must surely move beyond this to the point where we consider exactly what it means to award a doctorate: locally, nationally and internationally. Philip Burnard Member of the International Advisory Board Reference Johnson M 2000 Must they have a PhD? Nurse Education Today 20: 7: 511–512.
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