Why on earth would anyone do a PhD? Looking at the PhD in Australia

be dead

Lately I’ve been giving some thought to what the PhD journey is all about.  Partly because I’m coming to the end of my candidature – I’m now the second ‘oldest’ candidate in my office of 15 people, I’ve passed the three year mark and I’ve finished my data collection.  Another reason is that lately I’ve been engaging with some discussions on what, exactly, the PhD is and what it should be.

The ACOLA Review

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) is undertaking a Review of Australia’s Research Training System, of which the PhD is the major component.  The Review is asking what the PhD should look like if they are to be cost-effective and produce graduates with the skills required in a 21st century workforce.  As a committee member of the Postgraduate Students’ Association I had the opportunity to provide input into the development of UWA’s response.

The position of ACOLA appeared to be that the PhD process in Australia needs to be reformulated considering the number of PhD candidates is increasing year on year, with most now seeking jobs outside of academia, and with industry providing feedback that graduates did not have the practical skills required to work in industry.  The discussion paper hinted at a future program with increased links with industry, supervisory teams, a greater share of coursework components to develop skills and opportunities for entry and exit from the PhD program at different points, to promote flexibility.  Reading between the lines, this could indicate support for the ‘Bologna’ model; 3 years undergrad, 2 years masters by coursework, 3 years PhD by research.  (Cynically, I can’t help but note this would reduce costs for the federal government, by removing the HECS-supported Honours year, and increase income for universities, by promoting the full-fee Masters programs, but I digress…) UWA’s submission largely supported these assertions.

Responses from education researchers

ACOLA requested that submissions be evidence-based, however short time lines meant most of the submission was based on anecdotal information.  I decided to take the question to a forum where people with experience in the field might be able to provide feedback, and so this week I presented at the Western Australian Fogarty Foundation Postgraduate Research Forum.  The Forum is centred on the dissemination of research in education, and therefore includes the perfect audience for asking questions about the PhD: people doing a PhD, and people with experience in the teaching/training environment.

I was pleased to find that many people wanted to share their thoughts on what the PhD should be.  Attendees suggested:

  • Industry links should be developed, as they are being developed across the university program
  • However, the PhD should acknowledge existing industry experience, so ‘rules’ around industry engagement should be avoided
  • There was concern that increased industry links could see exacerbation of the current trend for PhD candidates to devote their time to a research group/industry project that they weren’t particularly interested in. One audience member suggested that one third of a PhD Candidate’s research area should be chosen by them
  • By promoting links with industry there is a danger that the PhD would lose its distinction from the Professional Doctorates currently available
  • Coursework is useful, but research suggests this should be accessed when it is relevant to the research, not at the beginning in a ‘front loaded’ process like a Masters by Coursework
  • Coursework should be optional, not mandated
  • Most importantly, people were adamant that any changes to the PhD process should ensure that the robustness of the program was maintained.

But then it got worse…

Following the Forum my conversations led to much more troubling questions about the PhD.  In particular, what was the point of doing a PhD?  The number of people doing PhDs across the world is sky-rocketing, with the result that the PhD is no longer an ‘exclusive’ qualification.  Most of those PhD candidates, and then graduates, are pumping out paper after paper, with the mass of literature now overwhelming.  There are also ongoing concerns about the quality of research being undertaken, with research showing that publication results, even in the most prestigious of journals, are not replicable, have low significance figures (value of difference) even if they are statistically significant, and have uncertain interactions with industry.  With the increased workload of academics these days (teaching, researching, supervising, administration, committees, service learning opportunity development, promotion, life?) opportunities for quality supervision are also low.  All-in-all this means most PhDs work ‘independently’ without support to produce papers that no one cares to read and graduate with degrees that don’t particularly distinguish them from anyone else in their job market.  The universities benefit from having cheap, tax-payer funded research positions, and readily available casual teachers to fill semester-long teaching positions.

Things have to change…

The next few years will surely see some massive shifts in the tertiary education environment, with universities struggling with funding, the potential for $100,000 degrees and constantly shifting political goalpostsInformation and education are no longer restricted to those at university; MOOCs make education available to everyone, Open Access journals democratise research and the rapid-fire release of thoughts and ideas across the web in the form of blogs and social networking (including academic sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu) mean timely discussion often gets more exposure than well-structure, peer review reports.

With university VCs making decisions on behalf of universities they see as corporate entities, governments making decisions without consideration for the people they represent, and academics largely forgotten in the discussion, it’s hard to know where the future will lead us.  I for one am ready for a shake-up.  I just hope it’s in the right direction.

(Comic from: http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1797)

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