Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best Practice Guidelines for PhD Programmes

The Irish Universities Quality Board in Ireland issued this document  last year. It spells out best practice guidelines for PhD programmes. It is worth looking at. From my purely on-the-ground perspective as someone involved in supervising students, the committee structure is certainly an improvement on the standard one-to-one structure, particularly where a student wants a primary supervisor with particular topic expertise but also wants a supervisor who can advise on other technical aspects. For example, a committee structure makes it possible for a student with a clear behavioural economics thesis to have a co-supervisor specialising in GIS and other examples like that. Similarly, the emphasis on encouraging PhD students to present work, attempt to publish and so on is all useful.

Having said that, I am still left with a feeling that what ultimately determines PhD success is a combination of the intelligence of the candidate, their intrinsic motivation, the extent to which their supervisor is working on a good area, the social norms existing in the research group and department and other things that are just hard to define in terms of these guidelines. Perhaps an emphasis on adherence to guidelines and monitoring of them may be harmless in terms of helping those who are having a bad experience with their supervisors and spotting "rogue" departments, without hindering groups who simply have found their own formula for gelling their research group together and producing good researchers.

Yet I do wonder sometimes what we might be communicating to students by getting them to regularly write down whether they have met a series of milestones such as transferrable skills training and so on. There is some risk that the message will be that following the instructions is what doing a PhD is about. Similarly, the idea that transferrable skills, such as communicating to policymakers, can be taught in a linear fashion is something that needs to be looked at. Particularly for social scientists, developing a policy orientation is as much a matter of deep level personal development as it is a skill. Some of the training can aid this (e.g. I certainly encourage people to take a presentation class) but at some stage the residual term that lies outside these production functions needs to kick in, with elements such as belief, intrinsic motivation, creativity and so on being given the seriousness they merit. These things are harder to measure and harder to develop "guidelines" for but should not be ignored when thinking about policy in this areas.

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