On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

Several friends in recent weeks have contacted me about whether or not they should consider doing a PhD – and the first question I always ask is “why?”. How they answer that has a huge impact on how I answer their own question. However, it has made me realise that although I have written many bits and pieces about the changing character of a PhD, I have never pulled them all together into a single place. This reflection is therefore in part a summary of how I see PhDs as having changed since I completed all 642 pages of my own thesis in 1979 (having started in 1976). I hope that the insights I have gained in the 41 years since then may be of value not only to those considering doing a PhD, but also more widely to others engaged in the supervision and management of doctoral research in universities.

In summary, whilst there continue to be some brilliant students who complete outstanding theses within three years, the sad truth is that over the last 25 years the PhD has become significantly devalued and corrupted. It is time for fundamental change in PhD “production”.

I say this with enormous regret, since I see the PhD process as being of huge value and importance. It is, though, the only conclusion I can reach after having supervised 28 MPhil and PhD students since the mid-1980s (across different disciplines, and most as the only or first PhD supervisor), having examined PhDs in some 25 universities in 11 countries, having served for a decade on the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (2004-14), and having also held various other roles relating to postgraduate research and training.

The following inter-related issues seem to be of most importance:

Not all PhDs are equal

There are huge differences in the requirements for and the quality of PhDs, not only between different countries, but also within countries, and even between departments in the same university. This is despite the use of external examiners who are meant to be arbiters of equivalence, and also despite the observation that most universities have fairly similar broad criteria for a PhD that focus on the advancement of knowledge through theoretical and empirical work. Imagine, for example, my shock when I was asked to agree to a PhD being awarded, thinking as I do that usually some 6 months of empirical field research is required for a good PhD in my field(s), only to be told that two weeks in the field was deemed to be sufficient by the university in question. The quality of expected intellectual curiosity, analytical acuity, conceptual ability, quantity of work, linguistic capability, and many other factors all vary hugely. The best PhDs remain outstanding pieces of research, but that cannot be said of all. Sadly, almost anyone with some ability can now be awarded a PhD at some university, even without resorting to some of the corrupt practices outlined further below.

Money talks and grade inflation

Grade inflation is well known at the undergraduate level (see for example Richmond, 2018; Lambert, 2019), but it has also happened at the Master’s level and even with PhDs. Unfortunately many (although again I stress not all) Master’s courses are poorly taught, and often seem to be mainly a means for universities to make as much money as possible from students willing to pay to differentiate themselves from their peers by having an additional Master’s qualification. This is a global phenomenon, but happens even in some UK universities that have a good reputation, which enables them to attract numerous higher fee-paying students from oversees. As undergraduate degrees become of lower value, it makes increasing sense for those students who can afford it to opt to get a step ahead by doing a Master’s degree – regardless of its quality. I have heard far too many stories of students paying to do a Master’s degree in a presitigious university, fully aware of the poor reputation of the teaching on the course, but still choosing to do so because of its perceived future benefit for their careers. Sadly there is a conspiracy of silence over this, because few students are willing to say publicly how poor the courses are, because that would immediately devalue them and thus their own status. Likewise no academic is likely to say that they teach a poor course, even if they rarely actually teach much of it themselves because they are too busy doing research and instead leave most of the teaching load to teaching assistants. The same is increasingly happening at the doctoral level. Universities are desperate for the much larger funds that PhD students bring – especially from overseas – and having accepted students they will do almost anything to ensure that they pass in one way or another. This can only lead to a lowering of quality.

The duration of a PhD

In the distant past, PhDs could unfortunately sometimes become a lifetime’s work, although they were never really intended to be this, and it has always been possible to complete an excellent PhD within three years. The expected duration of a PhD also varies somewhat between countries with different academic traditions. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards in the UK, Research Councils with their concerns to show value-for-money put increasing pressure on universities to limit the term of a PhD to a maximum of 4 years. Today, many universities insist that students must submit within four years, and failure to do so means that a degree is not awarded. In part this is driven by competition in league tables that include completion rates in their calculations, but it has also unfortunately often had the effect of reducing the quality of work submitted. In my experience, students who come from different academic traditions and more disadvantaged backgrounds often find it very difficult to adjust to starting a PhD in the UK, and I know that several of my own students in the past who completed very good PhDs would simply not have been able to do this within the 4-year limit now imposed. That would have been a shame, because they produced excellent PhDs and have gone on to do great things.

The pre-requisites for doing a PhD

It may seem strange for some to think that in the 1970s I went straight from doing an undergraduate degree to completing a PhD successfully. Now in the UK, most students must have at least one Master’s degree before starting, and even then they still have to do large amounts of postgraduate training especially in their first years of a PhD. In part this reflects the grade inflation that has so beset the sector over the last quarter of a century, with many people saying that Master’s degrees now are about the same standard that undergraduate degrees were from the “best” universities only a few years ago. However, it also reflects the increasing complexity of PhDs, and the requirement for postgraduates who wish to teach to gain relevant skills and training for their future academic career whilst doing their PhDs. Nevertheless, I still believe that a well-supervised, well-educated, outstanding undergraduate should be able to embark on a PhD without the necessity of spending time completing a Master’s qualification just for the sake of the certificate, especially when it is poorly taught and not necessarily of direct relevance to the topic of their proposed PhD.

Many other prospective students also seem to think that just because they have gained a Master’s degree somewhere (indeed anywhere in the world) that means they are undoubtedly capable of getting a PhD. This is very far from the truth. Only a few Master’s students in my experience have the inellectual curiosity and acuity successfully to complete a high quality PhD.

The challenges of part-time PhDs

I was recently asked if I thought that someone could successfully complete a PhD whilst also holding down a full-time job elsewhere. I responded quite simply “no”! It is extremely difficult if not impossible to do this and to submit a good thesis within a reasonable time period. Part-time degrees are meant to imply just that, namely that the student is also doing part-time paid work as well (not full-time), and if a full-time PhD is meant to be 3-4 years in length, then a part-time one, working >20 hours a week on it would require dedicated commitment for seven years which is a very tough order. I stand by this statement, and find it almost incredulous that some people can think of working 40-50 hours a week in paid employment and also do a PhD – especially when I feel that good PhD students should be committed to working at least 50 hours a week on their research for three entire years (with a few short holiday breaks). Yet many people still sadly do seem to think that they can complete a PhD with only a minimal amount of effort. This sadly just goes to show how the status of a PhD has fallen over the last half century!

There was definitely a time, though, in the mid-2000s when I very much championed the cause of part-time distance-based PhDs, and encouraged several people living in various parts of the world to join our ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) research community whilst working part-time in paid employment. This placed heavy burdens on them, and also on me as a supervisor, but it taught me a huge amount. None of them found it at all easy – and some found it very, very tough. However, they succeeded. Back in 2007 I therefore drafted a paper based on these experiences, although somehow never bothered to make the small number of revisions requested by a journal editor for it to be published. Having re-read it recently, I still think it has something of interest to say to those who are thinking of embarking on such a mode of PhD research and am now making it available here for anyone who might be interested – although it is undoubtedly somewhat dated.

Whose PhD actually is it?

I, perhaps too simplistically, still believe that in most cases a PhD should be the work of a single person, who actually does all, or certainly the vast majority, of it, from the research, fieldwork and analysis, to the writing up and presentation. To be sure things are sometimes more complex in laboratory sciences, or on expeditions when team work is essential, but even then the actual PhD should remain largely the work of one person – supported and guided by a supervisor (or a supervisory team) – and the precise amount contributed by others clearly stated. Not so long ago, supervisors worked carefully with their students, regularly going through manuscripts and helping them improve the quality of their academic writing. This is especially important when working with students from different cultures and academic traditions, and whose first language may not be the language in which the PhD has to be written. In the past, I often found myself spending a whole day going through a 10,000 word chapter for a student, and suggesting revisions to the text that could improve it. Increasingly, though, academics are discouraged from assisting students with developing these academic linguistic skills, because they don’t have the time to do it, because they are told that this is specialist work for support services to do, or because students who are accepted to do a PhD should already have these skills; sometimes students even object to supervisors commenting in detail about such things as sentence structure and written style, even though such comments are designed to help them develop these relevant skills!

A very specific, but increasingly common, issue arises when students send their draft work to an external “proof reader” before submitting it (there are many examples of companies offering this service, such as Scribendi, ProofReading, or Oxbridge Proofreading). It is relatively easy for a supervior to see when this happens, because there appears to be a dramatic, overnight, improvement in the quality of a student’s written work. It is, though, exceedingly difficult to know how much of a manuscrpt is actually written by the student, and how much by the “proof reader”. Given that having a PhD in a given language is meant to be indicative of the academic abilities of a person in that language, it seems to me that any substantial revision by someone other than a supervisor suggesting revisions to a draft is unacceptable.

At a further extreme, there are very clear examples of students getting a “friend” to do some of the work for them, such as doing the statistical calculations, drafting figures, preparing the templates, or even rewriting parts of it. If a thesis is meant to be a student’s own work, then these practices are likewise not acceptable. I remember drawing more than 50 figures with stencils and a Rotring pen for my own thesis, each of which took at least a day to complete – and that was without all of the computer generated graphs as well (which took some time to do back in the 1970s)!

Corruption within the system.

There are indeed many good supervisors, PhD students and management systems to support them across the world, but it also needs to be recognised that there are also many poor systems and outright corruption that must be rooted out, not least in my own country, the UK. Some dubious practices have already been suggested above, but these pale into significance when compared with the following examples.

Poor supervision and problematic examination boards

Sadly, there remain too many examples of poor doctoral supervision, although in my experience almost every academic I know well is hugely committed to this role, and sees it as a central and enjoyable part of their work. It is after all the main means through which new blood is brought into the system! Nevertheless, I am personally aware that the following practices still occur, and I am sure there are many others as well:

  • One of the main complaints is that some supervisors only rarely see their students. This has always been the case, but I know of cases where students have still had to complete their theses with only a handful of supervisory meetings over three years, and have been discouraged from making formal complaints about this because their supervisor is a “good academic researcher” and colleague in a department. Most students in such situations are also under severe pressure, not least because supervisors are often required as referees in their subsequent job applications, and in disciplines where supervisors are expected to be named authors on papers to make a complaint would severely handicap the submission of future publications from their theses.
  • Other supervisors have been known to use their students’ work primarily to build their own career and without giving them the credit for their original research [Partly for this reason, I have never asked to be an author on my students’ papers, and only ever write joint papers with them when I do a substantial amount of the actual research].
  • Some supervisors have tried to prevent their students from submitting their theses – occasionally right at the last minute – even when they themselves haven’t made the time to read and comment on final drafts. [It should always be up to the student to decide when a thesis is submitted].
  • Others are willing to take on large numbers of doctoral students for the prestige and income they generate, but know they don’t have time to supervise them all properly; the weakest often fail to swim and eventually drop out.
  • When it comes to the examination, it is sadly often the case that supervisors tend to try to find “softer” examiners for “weaker” candidates.
  • As an external examiner, I have also encountered very strong (and indeed quite upsetting) pressure from internal committees to change my mind; at least I won’t be asked to be an external again for such universities! [Increasingly, I have found myself warning universities that I will make judgements according to the standards that I consider appropriate, and when I suspect that a candidate may be weak I do not accept the invitation to be an external examiner. I have also been known to give my honest opinion of a piece of work, whilst adding the caveat that I don’t know the normal standard acceptable in an institution/country, and I would of course be willing to discuss the matter further].
  • I have recently been made aware of the term “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”, which is apparently quite common in certain parts of the world, particularly for undergraduates, but also occasionally for postgraduate degrees as well. I have to admit to being shocked that I hadn’t known of this term until the last few years – perhaps this shows just how naïve I am! It is, though, an issue that must be addressed – and the complexities involved mean that this is not necessarily always as easy as might at first sight be thought.

Fortunately, systems are being put in place by many universities to reduce such practices, but they do still exist, and tighter mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce poor supervisory and examination practices.

Student corruption

Much has been said and written before about problems with the supervisory process, but a few doctoral students are also themselves engaged in clearly corrupt practices. The extent of such corruption globally is unknown (although see Osipian, 2012; Denisova-Schmidt, 2018), but some inappropriate practices with which I am familiar include:

  • Paying someone to write part or all of a thesis. There is a fine line between this and the increasingly common use of “copy editors” noted above, but the widespread and sophisticated use by universities of plagiarism detecting software (such as Turnitin) has meant that those students who don’t have the time (or ability) to write their theses are now turning to professional dissertation and thesis writing services (see for example, Study Aid Essays, British Hub, UK Top Consultant, WritePaperForMe). One of these brazenly advertises its services as follows:

For 9 Years … has supported over 3,000 undergraduate, postgraduate & doctorate students with original custom essays, proposals, reports, literature reviews, full dissertations and statistical analysis in a wide range of subject areas

  • Arranging for a friend who will be supportive to serve as the external examiner. This should be precluded by the systems a university has in place for the appointment of examiners, but I even know of a case where it appears there was collusion between the student and the supervisor to ensure that a favourable friendly examiner was appointed.
  • Unfounded malicious accusations by students against their supervisors with the intent of ensuring that they are awarded their doctorates. Although these cases are rare, it is easy for a student to blame a supervisor for their own failings. Despite the apparent power relationships in favour of supervisors, some universities are so concerned about the “bad press” that can follow in such circumstances that they tend to find ways through which the student can succeed, even when the consequent standard is low.
  • The giving of lavish gifts by a student to their supervisor. This can be hugely complex, especially because gift giving has varying meanings and significance in different cultures. Nevertheless, it can be very problematic for a supervisor to accept expensive gifts from a postgraduate student before the award of the degree, even when there is no devious intent behind it [Gifts of appreciation after the award of a degree do, though, still seem appropriate should a student wish to give them].
  • I know several examples where doctoral students have not done the empirical field research themselves, but have instead paid for assistants to do it on their behalf, and do not acknowledge or admit such “help” in the text of a thesis. Given that I expect a thesis to be “all the student’s work” (see above), I cannot condone this practice, but I am aware that it seems to be acceptable by some universities in certain circumstances. Translation also represents a challenge, and I confess that in the past I have usually insisted that students learnt a language of the country in which they were doing their research.
  • I have not myself encountered cases where thesis data have been fraudulently “created”, but notorious examples exist, and the scale of this problem is undoubtedly greater than many people care to admit, not only in postgraduate research but also more widely in academia (see Hopf, Mehta and Matlin, 2019).

Many of these dimensions of corruption are extremely difficult to prove, but universities should recognise that they exist, and should do more to prevent them. In a nutshell, as less-able people seek to gain doctorates, the likelihood of fraud and corruption undoubtedly increases.

This is not only morally wrong, but it is also unfair on those many students who work extremely hard to achieve a PhD, it devalues the worth of PhDs in general, and it contributes yet further to a lowering of the overall quality of academic research.

A positive conclusion

Despite the above comments, I like to believe that most supervisors and doctoral students work collaboratively and well together, and that many truly original and excellent theses continue to be crafted across the world. Working with able postgraduates has certainly been one of the real joys of my academic career although there is no doubt that supervisory relationships are among the most fraught and challenging of any in academia. It is truly a blessing to see how the careers of most of those students who I have had the privilege to supervise have flourished and blossomed, and it is a joy to keep in touch with so many of them.

In the 2000s, recognising the need for me to give greater clarity about what was involved in doing a PhD in our ICT4D Collective, and to help students undertstand my own expectations of the superviosry process, I produced two documents. Having looked at them again, it is evident that they need some updating (they were last updated in 2007 and 2008), but I still stand by almost everything contained within them, and so am posting them here as a guide for potential students (and interested others) to what I try to practise as far as supervision is concerned:

The first of these emphasises that a good PhD should not be a life-work – that will come later! Instead, I have found that it is often easier to see a PhD primarily as something that provides evidence of the achievement of a key set of seven academic skills (slightly adapted below):

  • Being thoroughly conversant with the key intellectual debates in a particular subject area, and using this to provide a conceptual framework for the thesis
  • Being able to identify important novel issues from these that will form the focus of their research, and developing these into a clear aim
  • Being able to design a relevant methodology to undertake rigorous empirical work that will add to our collective knowledge in that research field
  • Then using this to undertake research and gain empirical evidence in a particular place or places
  • Analysing the results of that field research in the context of the theoretical or conceptual framework
  • Writing this up clearly and effectively in an interesting way
  • Drawing relevant conclusions that move knowledge forward, and (for the field of ICT4D) make new practical recommendations in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Over the years, I have come to realise that students have varying strengths and weaknesses in achieving each of these. Many have difficulties in engaging theoretically and developing an approprioate conceptual framework, whilst the majority find the empirical field research most enjoyable. Nevertheless, a good prior degree should enable the first four of these elements to be done relatively easily. Unfortunately, some students can only get this far, and find it impossible satisfactorily to analyse the data, which results in an overly descriptive and thus problematic thesis.

I do hope that these reflections may be of help and interest to those embarking on a research degree – although I have very deliberately not answered the question that I posed at the beginning! That’s up to you, but I hope that what I have written will help you answer it!

4 Comments

Filed under ICT4D, Postgraduate supervision, research

4 responses to “On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Thanks a lot Tim for coming up with this piece. As you said, the question of WHY needs to be there before planning for a PhD. Many people ask me why I got admitted into PhD in ICT4D after having a long time practical career in the same field. Well, in my case is to find the theoretical rigour and to learn to write perfectly and reflect on my ICT4D interventions. I think the objectives varies from person to person. Thanks again for this wonderful blog.

  2. Kandiah Kanagasingam

    A very insighful and thought provoking article .Can even be basis for a Phd .

  3. Thanks for this Tim

    This is a very important issue and I’m grateful to you for airing it; it deserves wider discussion. I part company with you on one or two points but overall wholeheartedly support what you say. I’d like to add or develop a couple of points, please.
    1) ‘Not all PhDs are equal.’ You could add that there are differences between disciplines, as well as countries/universities. While I was a PhD student (so 20 years ago now) I was shocked to be told that another discipline did not expect any engagement with theory, or a conceptual framework, for a PhD (this seems important to me in the move up from Masters to Doctoral level).
    2) The rise in popularity of PhDs by publication. Three or so refereed articles topped and tailed to give the appearance of a single sustained piece of work. In principle that can be the case – but too often they are used by an academic who lacks the stamina to manage a sustained, long-term research project but need to get the necessary qualification.
    3) Language. I was supervised by someone who said my PhD should be of publishable standard, and that is what I’ve always adhered to. But too often ‘allowances’ are made because the student wants an English PhD when it isn’t their native tongue and they won’t use an effective proofing service (or maybe those services are increasingly slapdash). However, worse is the native English speaker who produces a a PhD below par. I examined on in the UK once which – whilst a good piece of research overall, – was riddled with grammatical and presentational errors which made it hard to follow. When I commented that it seemed to me to be a penultimate draft my (well-regarded) co-examiner said that they thought it was perfect and very well written.
    4) There are some particular issues in France, where I work. Supervisors seem especially prepared to have minimal contact with students. One friend had to demand, repeatedly, a meeting with their supervisor; it finally happened one year after their last meeting, with a number of other students also present. This supervisor had 19 students on the go at once!

    When I was research manager for my School in Australia I developed a ‘PhD contract” which was designed for all students and supervisors to adopt. It set out minimum expectations for both sides (frequency of meetings, notice and minimum time to be given to a supervisor for reading chapters, rules for co-publishing etc.). Whilst many universities give ‘guidelines’ on supervision I’m surprised that a document like this is not used more frequently.

    • Tim Unwin

      Thanks Steve. I agree with all of these – although the piece was getting a bit long, and I was trying to reduce it! On the four points you raise:
      1) I did mention this, although used the word departments rather than disciplines – I definitely agree that dsciplinary practice varies hugely.
      2) Had thought about raising the issue of PhD by publication – but it raises so many separate issues as well! Am definitely inclined to agree that it can lower the standard, especially dependent on what journals someone publishes in!
      3) On language – I hadn’t meant to imply that this was only an issue when writing in non-native languages. You are right that the quality of academic writing has in general plummeted, but I remember as a young book and journal editor that I suddenly realised that some people whose work I had admired had made their career from other people/editors having to rewrite their papers for them! I said then that this was unacceptable, and still stand by that!
      4) Sadly, I think that supervisors scarcely meeting students is common far beyond France! Usually, but not always, this is the supervisor’s fault!
      Contracts between students and departments are increasingly common – although I think it’s sad we have had to come to this.
      Thanks again for your useful additions!

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