Discrepancies between the "ideal" and "passable" doctorate: Supervisor thinking on doctoral standards

Year: 2004

Author: Cantwell, Robert, Scevak, Jill

Type of paper: Refereed paper

The research degree examining process in the United Kingdom could be said to have stood still in the past 50 years, since it has changed little in that period. (Powell & Green, 2003; Joyner, 2003). The examining process itself developed at a time when a few rare and exceptional individuals undertook doctoral study and this was usually in the natural sciences and therefore the UK system is based on an implicit assumption, “that if a PhD thesis had been written and submitted, the candidate deserved the degree”(Joyner, 2003). In the UK this would still appear to be the case, since there have been very few failures of submitted thesis (Joyner, 2003). Holbrook et al (2003) in the Australian context examined 300 examiner reports and found none recommend failure although in six reports substantial revisions were mandated. A predisposition by experienced examiners to pass a thesis has been reported in other studies (Johnston, 1997; Pitkethley & Prosser, 1995; Kiley & Mullins, 2002).

In the past few years the research degree examining process has been the subject of much debate (Powell & Green, 2003). In a recent review of assessment processes in doctoral study, Denicolo (2003) made note of two somewhat paradoxical findings: that there is little cross-institutional agreement as to what actually constitutes a doctorate, and very few submitted thesis fail to achieve the award. Whilst notions such as “original contribution”, “peer reviewed publishability”, and “evidence of independent research skills” are common to most university guidelines for doctoral study, the actual criteria that underlie these attributes are rarely, if ever, made explicit in university documentation (Powell & Green, 2003). Therefore the interpretation of these notions and the weighting that is given to these components in the process of research degree examination remain idiosyncratic to the examiners themselves. As a consequence the assessment criteria for doctoral study have remained implicit and are operationalised in a subjective manner. Studies of examiner comments have also provided only limited indications of shared beliefs about underlying attributes and benchmarks, although they have been forthcoming in terms of specific categories of concern (Holbrook, Bourke, Lovat & Monfries, 2001).

It seems to us that the major explanation of the paradox identified by Denicolo (2203) lies in the implicit understandings of supervisors – those who have both the intimate “process-level” relationship with the candidate and who simultaneously play both a gatekeeper role in “signing-off” the completed thesis as suitable for examination and an examiner role for other candidates. Our first point of concern in this paper then is with the conceptions of the doctorate and doctoral process expressed by a group of supervisors in our study.