The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact

Podcast: Working Scientist (LS 31 · TOP 5% what is this?)
Episode: The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact
Pub date: 2019-12-06

The thesis is a central element of how graduate students are assessed. But is it time for an overhaul? Julie Gould finds out.

How do you decide whether or not somebody is a fully trained researcher? Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a non-profit that supports the professional development of researchers, tells Julie Gould that it’s time to be “really brave” and look at how doctoral degrees are examined.

But what role should the thesis play in that assessment? Does it need overhauling, updating, or even scrapping?

Inger Mewburn, who leads research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and who founded of The Thesis Whisperer blog in 2010, suggests science could learn from architecture. Student architects are required to produce a portfolio, creating a “look book” for assessors or potential employers to examine as part as part of a candidate’s career narrative. For graduate students in science, this could include papers, journals, articles, presentations, certificates, or even video files.

“The PhD is meant to turn out individual, beautifully crafted, entirely bespoke and unique knowledge creators,” she tells Gould. “And we need people like that. We need creative people with really different sorts of talents. We don’t want to turn out ‘cookie cutter’ researchers.”

David Bogle, who leads early career researcher development at University College London, tells Gould that UCL’s three-pronged mission statement includes impact.

“We want our research to make an impact, and in order to support and reinforce that it is now mandatory to include a one page impact statement at the front saying ‘this is the difference it will make in the world,'” he tells Gould. “Any impact — curriculum, society, business, anything. It might not end up making that difference, but we want people to think about it.”

What about the pressure to publish? In October 2019 Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of UK and EU Research Landscape at the Wellcome Trust in London, argued in a World View article published in Nature Human Behaviour that PhD merit needs to be defined by more than publications.

She tells Gould that the experience of getting published is a good thing, but making it mandatory is not. “Learning writing skills is a hugely important part of PhD training. Should it be a requirement that all students publish in peer reviewed journals in order to pass the PhD? My answer is absolutely and emphatically no.”


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