There is one thing that a PhD student fears more than their research failing, exploding or becoming sentient and that is the oncoming dread of having to write up several years of hard work into a thesis at the end of their project. In the UK, where I’m based, a PhD thesis typically consists of 40,000 to 100,000 words describing the research area, methods and results. I’m approaching the end of writing mine and it’s been a particularly gruelling experience.
I’m writing this blog to consider if there is an alternative way to assess PhD students after completing their research. I’ve spoken to a lot of academics about thesis writing and I’ve heard it described as outdated and Victorian but also as the only effective way to assess how much work a student has done and a necessary evil that makes achieving a doctorate suitably challenging. Once written and submitted the thesis is typically assessed by an interview with examiners, known as a viva. I’ve attached two poll questions to this blog post as I thought it would be interesting to see where people’s opinions lie and whether a thesis should be viewed as the gold standard of PhD assessment or whether alternatives should be considered.
Being in the middle of the writing process my opinion is somewhat biased but I feel the thesis is unnecessary and somewhat damaging to PhD students in the 21st century. The career market for new doctors is now highly competitive and some of the best weapons you can have in your arsenal while job hunting are published papers. Published work demonstrates an ability to research novel ideas and communicate them effectively. Job hunting itself is often a stressful and demanding experience and it can be hard to find the energy when you’re writing 1,000+ words for your thesis every day.
Published papers that have been through the hurdles of peer review are far more useful to science than a PhD thesis as the latter has not been as rigorously examined. If a PhD student could dedicate more time to paper writing I feel it would lead to more publications and important data reaching a wider audience. Like many things in academia I feel we are living in a system that is outdated and hurts both PhD students and the communication of scientific research. Though many institutions are considering alternatives, for now thesis writing remains the standard method to assess a PhD student. In my opinion a system that is more suited to the nature of modern academic life needs to be brought in as soon as possible. Getting a doctorate should still be an immense challenge but the output should be papers and presentations that benefit science and the student and not a lengthy tome that exists merely to pass an examination