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There are theories that few students fail because universities want to keep their number of graduates high for the rankings.But most researchers dispute this, and point to other reasons.
“It almost feels like a rite of passage,” she says.
Ph Ds 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.
On the morning of Tom Marshall's Ph D 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.“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 Ph D walks away,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust in London.That could be because students are analysing more complex questions, performing longer literature reviews and using increasingly complicated methods that require lengthier explanations (see 'The expanding thesis').“It's unnecessary to have such a long thesis,” says Farrar, who recently assessed one such tome.Increasingly, institutions offer courses to Ph D students in skills such as teamwork, management and research ethics, but these skills aren't usually assessed formally.The viva would be one opportunity to do so, perhaps by seeing how students react to various scenarios.Rather than thinking of the thesis and viva as an exam, it should be viewed as the culmination of a long project.“You need to look at the Ph D in the context of those four years of research, not just as revision for one big test.” Mewburn stresses that whatever form the assessment takes, it should focus more on the individual than on their work.“'The thicker my Ph D, the better' has become a myth in the Ph D community, and is taking it down the wrong direction.” Farrar says that a slimmed-down document would be more appropriate.That could follow the concise format of a research paper, and include a review of the field, then short chapters on methods, analysis and discussion. And the examiners will probably read it all.” That isn't necessarily the case now.