Doctoral courses are slowly being modernized. Now the thesis and viva need to catch up.

On the morning of Tom Marshall’s PhD defence, he put on the suit he had bought for the occasion and climbed onto the stage in front of a 50-strong audience, including his parents and 6 examiners. He gave a 15-minute-long presentation, then faced an hour of cross-examination about his past 5 years of neuroscience research at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. A lot was at stake: this oral examination would determine whether he passed or failed. “At the one-hour mark someone came in, banged a stick on the floor and said ‘hora est‘,” says Marshall — the ceremonial call that his time was up. “But I couldn’t. I had enjoyed the whole experience far too much, and ended up talking for a few extra minutes.”

Marshall’s elaborate, public PhD assessment is very different from that faced by Kelsie Long, an Earth-sciences PhD candidate at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Her PhD will be assessed solely on her written thesis, which will be mailed off to examiners and returned with comments. She will do a public presentation of her work later this year, but it won’t affect her final result. “It almost feels like a rite of passage,” she says.

PhDs are assessed in very different ways around the world. Almost all involve a written thesis, but those come in many forms. In the United Kingdom, they are usually monographs, long explanations of a student’s work; in Scandinavia, science students typically top-and-tail a series of their publications. The accompanying oral examination — also called a viva voce or defence — can be a public lecture, a private discussion or not happen at all. There is wide variation across disciplines and from one institution to the next. “It is a complicated world in doctoral education. One format does not fit all,” says Maresi Nerad, founding director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but some researchers worry that the decades-old doctoral assessment system is showing strain. Time-pressured examiners sometimes lack training and preparation for PhD assessments, which can lead to lack of rigour. “Two or three examiners come together to go through the thesis in a perfunctory way. They tick the boxes, everyone is happy, and then a PhD walks away,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust in London.

Farrar, like other scientists, suspects that the PhD assessment is not keeping up with the times. Single-author tomes seem outdated when much of research has become a multidisciplinary, team endeavour. Research is becoming more open, but PhD assessments can lack transparency: vivas are sometimes held behind closed doors. Some PhD theses languish, little-used, on office shelves or in archives. “We’re seeing some students who are still submitting paper theses to us — they don’t have electronic theses yet,” says Austin McLean, director of scholarly communication and dissertation publishing at ProQuest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has the largest database of PhD theses in the world. What’s more, little attention is given in the PhD assessment to soft skills such as management, entrepreneurship and teamwork, even though these are an essential part of life beyond the PhD, and students are increasingly leading that life outside academia. “The assessment of the PhD hasn’t been updated to fit the modern definition of a PhD,” Farrar says.

“There are a lot of pressures to make changes to the thesis,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC, one of a number of groups discussing the issue. The council organized a workshop in January this year called Future of the PhD Dissertation, and in March, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in Melbourne examined changes to the thesis as part of a review on researcher training. Some scientists and education experts welcome the attention. “I don’t think the current model for thesis examination is ideal, but there are positive movements towards changing it,” says Inger Mewburn, director of research training at ANU and editor of the blog The Thesis Whisperer, which is dedicated to those completing a thesis.

Passing the test

Academics agree about one thing regarding the PhD assessment — its aim. The traditional goal is to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to conduct independent research on a novel concept and to communicate the results in an accessible way. Where the academics differ is on how best to achieve that goal.

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Julie Gould  editor for Naturejobs.