For the past two years and some, I’ve been working towards a doctorate degree. As a result, I have been thinking a fair amount about the process of doing a doctorate. I have a couple (several) pet peeves relating to doctoral study and the organisation and administration thereof, but today I would like to share some of my thoughts on the climax of the degree: the thesis, and the writing thereof.
Thesis writing is different between countries. Here, in the UK, the thesis is (typically, traditionally) a stand-alone piece of work (a monograph), that is written from scratch and complete with chapters forming the introduction, listing the materials used, describing the results of the work–and what they all mean in a greater context. In other countries, the thesis can be formed from a collection of scientific papers (each one standing alone with their own introductions and lists of materials, and results and discussions), all bound together with a joint introduction and discussion of the implications of this part of the literature. I think both methods have merit.
Many people in academia prefer the latter method: of collating a student’s professional oeuvre. Students, in particular, like this method because it requires minimum effort on their behalf; all that’s required is for the student to collect all their published papers and write an introduction to their body of work and to discuss what it all means. Ease aside, another argument in favour of the ‘collated’ thesis is that it won’t take time away from writing research articles; the help the student further their future career. A third argument would be from the examiners, who, typically, prefer shorter theses, since they are easier to examine.
However, personally, I am in the minority group of finding the merits of the monograph thesis to be the most convincing–and I’d like to use this post to explain why.
In a Nature News & Comment article asking What’s the point of the PhD thesis?, several arguments pro and against the prevailing monograph model are presented. The arguments against focus on the need to publish during your PhD, whereas one of the arguments in favour of the monograph is an emphasis on discovery:
But others argue that the pressure to publish could rob PhD students of valuable parts of their studies, such as the time to shape their research path and to think creatively and independently. “The PhD might become driven by papers only,” says Farrar. “Students might end up spending their time focusing only on what papers they can produce, then staple them together with a summary and they’re done — adding to the sense that the whole scientific enterprise is a paper factory rather than an exploration.”
Part of the disagreement of the purpose of the PhD thesis is, I think, because we forget to bring into the discussion the purpose of the doctoral degree itself. Is the purpose of a PhD to publish papers to improve your post-doctoral career prospects? Or is the point of the PhD to pursue an exploratory project and gain research and management skills? As for myself, I believe the purpose of the PhD is the latter: to gain training in long-term project management, and, hopefully, discover something exciting and new.
One of my past professors told me that the different levels of training in academia are suited to different research projects. Undergraduate students are typically in the laboratory for a short time only, and are therefore not expected to produce many results. Therefore, my professor argued, undergraduate projects are a great opportunity to engage in truly exploratory work, where success is rare, but if it does happen, incredibly exciting. Master’s and PhD students are in the laboratory for a longer time, and have the time to get more results. Still, researchers on these levels are still relatively spared from the pressure to publish, and my professor thought the PhD was your last opportunity as a serious researcher to break genuinely new ground and to seize the opportunity to truly explore the unknown. After your PhD, if you decide to stay on in academia, your work has a different purpose: to publish. Therefore, my professor argued that postdocs deserved–needed–safe projects that were guaranteed to succeed. And, indeed, this is the kind of project that most senior researchers prefer, since this is the easiest way to get grants, to allow you to stay on in academia. For the professional academic, there is no future in failure. Unfortunately, failure is often the result of genuine exploration.
Assuming that the PhD is the last exploratory frontier before the reality of academia bites, this has three possible outcomes. One, the PhD student will come across something truly novel–although this is rare. Two, the PhD student will not find anything, because the project was a failure. This is, thankfully, also quite rare. Three, the PhD student will find something, although it is not very exciting. This is, I think, the most common outcome; given the nature of science as proceeding only incrementally.
With these three outcomes in mind, what are the likely implications of these on the final thesis?
I get the impression that the collated PhD is, partly, a result of the way PhD students are seen in research, and a consequence of the contemporary ‘supervisor-student conflict’; where the student and supervisor can have very different intentions for the desired outcome of the doctoral degree. Many laboratories enjoy PhD students as ‘free labour’, since the student’s stipend allows the laboratory to not pay for the student’s upkeep, and stipends also often come with money to fund laboratory consumables. To have a PhD student is therefore a low-cost solution for a laboratory in economic terms. In real terms, the student does however cost the laboratory something: time. A new student takes time to train, and they require supervision and academic mentoring as part of this training. Whereas the student wants this training (indeed, it is the reason why they are doing the PhD in the first place), it is in the supervisor’s interest to minimise this training to increase their own cost-benefit ratio: to benefit from the student’s labour while minimising the time spent on direct supervision.
Genuine supervision will only come if the supervisor is willing to disregard the drain this supervision will place on their time; working altruistically to hope academia sensu lato will benefit from the investment of the supervisor’s time on student training. Sadly, this kind of supervision is not encouraged by the contemporary research climate, and it is likely that PhD students will be pressured to deliver: to deliver results and, ultimately, publications. In this case, the collated thesis will be the outcome, because the focus of their studies was publication. The end result of this kind of training will be to produce students who are good at publishing–but who may not necessarily have received much experience of the more subtle nuances of doctoral work.
Conversely, the lucky students who find themselves in laboratories where discovery is the main goal (and publication a fortunate consequence), and which are run by supervisors who take their training responsibilities seriously, the focus of the PhD student’s training will be on skills development: of learning new methods; of getting a solid understanding of experimental design and data analysis; of getting teamwork experience; of realising just how much fun research can be. This kind of PhD is likely to have limited scientific impact–since the focus is on the process (learning), rather than the result (publication)–although useful, transferable skills will have been learned. This kind of doctoral project is less likely to result in sufficient publications to form a collated thesis, and is more suited for a monograph.
Indeed, it is my belief that the monograph is a training exercise in its own right, and an important part of any doctoral training process. Because in what other path of life (unless you go into a writing career) do you get the opportunity to plan a project on such a grand scale? A monograph thesis in the natural sciences is typically around 50,000 words, and in excess of 200 pages (albeit double-spaced). To write such a document requires a lot of important skills in project management and data interpretation and analysis–in addition to communication skills (regarding writing and data visualisation); analytical skills (regarding the interpretation of the results–or lack thereof); and historical skills (to put the work into context and propose future directions). All of these are skills that should be considered essential to the doctoral training process, meaning that the monograph thesis is a crucial part of any PhD.
In fact, I would go as far as to argue that the monograph thesis is the most important part of the PhD. This is an opinion that has earned me much ridicule among my fellow academics, but I think the doctoral thesis should be considered a masterpiece. Consider the following excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on ‘Masterpiece’:
Originally, the term masterpiece referred to a piece of work produced by an apprentice or journeyman aspiring to become a master craftsman in the old European guild system. His fitness to qualify for guild membership was judged partly by the masterpiece, and if he was successful, the piece was retained by the guild. Great care was therefore taken to produce a fine piece in whatever the craft was, whether confectionery, painting,goldsmithing, knifemaking, or many other trades.
Considering that a PhD is an apprenticeship in science, the thesis–which is the final culmination of the project–would be the masterpiece of the academic training process, and should be representative of the student’s best work; showcasing their skill as a researcher, discoverer, communicator, and qualified academic to the already-academics who have been chosen to judge the merits of the work through the final examination.
Some may argue that the view of the monograph thesis as an academic masterpiece are long gone, and that academia has moved on. And that, again, brings us back to publication. Is the primary purpose of academia really to publish? Or is it to better understand the world? I am enough of an idealist still to believe the latter to still be true–even if academia has forgotten. Therefore I am willing to profess to another unpopular opinion, to which I am alluding in the title of this post, that we need to defend the importance of the thesis. If the thesis is the masterpiece of academic training (which I believe it is), why do we show the thesis so little respect? Typically, the student loathes to write the thesis; the examiners loathe to read and examine it; and the final fate of the thesis is to linger forgotten in a university library depository somewhere–rendering all the work that went into it for nothing. People use this as argument in favour of the collated thesis; arguing that because the thesis has no purpose, let’s make the thesis as simple as possible. But again, this is not the point of the PhD or the thesis. The point of the PhD is training, and the thesis is to show demonstrate what all the training has amounted to. Therefore, I believe we should show the thesis greater deference: let us make the thesis the work on which the doctoral candidate is assessed–not only as part of the examination process, but also in the professional context. Postdoctoral positions should be be awarded primarily on the basis of the candidate’s publication record, but also on the quality of their thesis. because whereas publications are typically authored by multiple people (and the first author may not even have written the publication themselves), the monograph thesis is written by one person only: the doctoral student–making the monograph the best representation of the student’s ability.
I’m leaving academia, because I am too much of an idealist about science to last long in the contemporary academic climate (or to want to). But if I were to stay and eventually make it to the point of running my own laboratory, I would ask postdoctoral candidates applying to work in my laboratory submit a copy of their thesis alongside their more traditional application. Looking them through, I would give preference to the candidates who took care in writing their final thesis, since this is (to me) a sign of a conscientious scientist who actually enjoys what they are doing.
Because at the end of the day, science is about enjoying the struggles of leading up to discovery. And writing is an important part of that, since a good scientist also needs to be a good communicator; being able to explain their work in simple terms to prove that they actually understand what they’re doing. Incidentally, this is another argument in favour of the monograph: don’t go into academia if you don’t like writing. Because writing is what it’s all about–whether you publish or not.