PhDs: what are we doing?

Today I acted as a PhD external examiner for the final time. If you’ve read discussions of what the responsibilities of a retired academic should be, you’ll maybe have seen ‘examining PhDs’ in there, as part of our supposed duty to the next generation of scholarship. However, having examined more PhDs in the last three years than in my entire previous career up until then, I’m not going to continue. So, here’s why not.

The deal

For anyone reading this who’s not in this game, or not familiar with the UK version of it, this is the deal for PhD examiners. You read through about 80,000 words of text (sometimes there are appendices too). You come to a provisional decision as to whether the thesis meets its university’s criteria for a pass: these will be phrased a little differently from university to university but will always include originality, broader knowledge of the discipline as a whole and the ability to argue a case with proper support from evidence. You write an independent report on your preliminary views – independent in the sense of not having spoken to your fellow examiners about what you have found – and then you send that to the chair of the panel or the university’s Research Students Office before the date set for the viva.

Then you use a day of your life in traveling to the viva, questioning the candidate in a rigorous but appropriate way about their findings, the wider background to their research, and so on, partly in order to satisfy yourself that they wrote the thesis (!) but also to give them a chance to explain in more detail what they wrote. I tell students that this is the one time in their life that they’ll get to discuss their work with two people who have read all of it and who know the field very well! A good viva can allay any fears which were raised by reading the thesis; is this student really aware of this particular scholarly debate? Yes, if they can answer questions on it in the viva.

Then you discuss the events of the viva with the other examiner or examiners, come to a conclusion, and tell the candidate the result. In different universities there are different options on offer, but typically in addition to a simple pass there’s some sort of minor revisions category where the candidate may have 1 or 3 or 6 months to make corrections, and a major revisions category where, for example, the examiners are asking for a whole new chapter. For very major revisions (sometimes called ‘Revise and resubmit’), it will be up to one year of rewriting time before the candidate submits the revised version. Then you put together an agreed report to send to the Research Students Office, and then you get your train home.

The cash

The fee for this experience – all of it, covering several days of reading the thesis and the viva process – is around £180. Say, three days of reading and a day of examining: 28 hours? (I wish academic work days really were only 7 hours!) So, £6.42 per hour, before tax. Hmm; that’s below the national minimum wage. And of course while in employment we are also receiving our salaries at the same time; but we are also unable to do what we should be doing in the day job because we are working on the examining process, so we need to put in even more hours to get the day job done.

‘While in employment…’ So there’s one reason why I won’t be doing this again. But it certainly isn’t just about the money. I think universities are taking on PhD students they shouldn’t be teaching. This isn’t necessarily a comment on the quality of the students. And it isn’t related to any specific examining experience; it is my cumulative view after examining students over the whole of my career. PhD fees are desirable for universities, and some are too keen to take the money, without thinking of the experience of the student.


At The Open University, they take the process of allocating students to supervisors very seriously indeed. Each supervisor – and in my department there will be two or three for just one specific student – has to fill in a form giving details of previous supervision experience and of how their knowledge relates to the topic of the thesis. You’d think that would be obvious, perhaps – but it isn’t. In addition, over the three years of a full-time PhD or the six years of a part-time one, supervisors go on parental or research leave, retire, or die. Having a supervision team rather than – as in my day – a single supervisor means that continuity is maintained. Also, the student can draw on expertise related to different aspects of their thesis topic. If there is nobody in your institution who really knows about the topic, then you can always pay someone from another university to come on to the team; I’ve had experience of this both as the external supervisor and as an internal working with an external. So, there are ways.

However, chatting at conferences and seminars in recent years I have encountered PhD students in my broad field who, when I ask them who their supervisors are, come up with the name of just one person, whose competency I doubt. For example (entirely hypothetically) if you were deciding whether or not to accept a potential PhD candidate in, say, Roman medicine, would you suggest as supervisor someone who worked on Greek literature? Perhaps yes; if the student wanted to work on Galen, who wrote in Greek within the Roman world, then a Greek literature background could be useful. Would it be enough on its own, though, without any prior knowledge of ancient medicine? I was lucky because, at UCL, it was easy for my supervisor to send me along for informal chats with experts at the Wellcome when my research started to become more focused on ancient medicine than I’d anticipated. Some universities can offer this sort of back-up: most can’t.

Too many PhDs?

When I was growing up in the profession, the word was that a supervisor could manage a maximum of 6 PhD students at a time. From my experience, I think that’s too many, at least in Arts subjects. My maximum has been 4, and that can mean some weeks when nothing much happens apart from reading and commenting on my students’ draft chapters. I’ve supervised on topics central to my own work, and – with appropriate teams – on topics which are on its fringes.

In recent years, PhD applications have gone somewhat crazy. Students who have set their hearts on a particular university and department don’t always realise that there are limits both to the topics any person can supervise, and to the number of students that can be properly supervised by one person, even on teams. At the same time, the process of applying has changed. When I applied, I needed to write about 15 lines on my topic – so the decision to admit me was about my academic record more than the topic. Now, the student needs to write several pages, with bibliography, about the thesis before starting to research or write it! You’d think that acted as a deterrent but, oddly, it doesn’t. The process adds to the academic workload because potential supervisors are expected to advise on drafts of these applications.

At the end of all this – application, acceptance, many years of writing, possibly some months of rewriting post-viva – you have a doctorate. There aren’t enough jobs for all successful candidates to enter the university teaching profession, of course. But not all get there. I can think of many reasons why not all students who are admitted to a PhD programme graduate with a PhD. They drop out because they hadn’t fully appreciated what is involved. Life intervenes. They submit while the thesis is incomplete because they’ve got a job or because they are studying away from their home country and need to return. What distresses me, though, is when I find a student whose supervisors are so far from the topic that they don’t know the basic reference works in the field or the scholarship on the central issues, and who shouldn’t be in the role in the first place.

It’s not right to pay examiners a pittance. But, even more, it’s not right to take students’ money without giving them the service they deserve.



The QAA sets out the code for research degrees here. It’s worth a read.


2 thoughts on “PhDs: what are we doing?

  1. A lot of very fair points there. I personally think team-teaching is very much the way of the future(especially in reception topics), and I think it’s the way things are often done in Roehampton, though this is not something I’m closely involved in. As for the pressures to take on PhD students who can’t really be serviced, well, yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The fee for a PhD viva counts as “employment”, so one has to prove one’s eligibility for employment in order to be paid. Given the requirement to be an established senior academic in order to be appointed external in the first place, I always tell these universities that, if it turns out I’m *not* eligible to work, then my university is probably in deeper problems than they are. Then I tell them, that if this really is employment, they are paying less than minimum wage, which definitely *is* illegal…

    Liked by 1 person

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