What I'm reading

A PhD thesis. This is the entry ticket to the academic guild, the last survival of the medieval masterpiece.[1] The old-style thesis has largely disappeared in the United States, being replaced by a combination of coursework and a “three essays” dissertation. I think it would be a good thing if Australia went the same way. But, in the meantime, examining theses is part of the job, and often a painful one. The one I read this weekend was one of the easy ones, without any need for radical revisions or the ultimate catastrophe, a failing grade. I can write my report today and send it off with a light heart.

fn1. Not, as in today’s usage, an artist’s greatest work, but the piece done by an apprentice to qualify as a master, without any expectation that it should involve notable difficulty or efforts of a truly exceptional kind. premarin vaginal cream applicator

12 thoughts on “What I'm reading

  1. Put me in the conservative camp on the PhD thingo. I’d like to see your case for change sometime John.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything Andrew Norton has to say on this.

    Of course, there’s a discipline-specific element to this. Economists don’t write a lot of books, so requiring a book-length piece as an admission ticket seems silly.

    But my impression, shared with Andrew, is that few PhD’s in any field were ever turned into readable books (as a buyer, I would rarely look at a book after recognising it as a converted thesis), and that most now aren’t turned into books at all. I imagine if there is an exception, it would be history.

  3. Being in the throes of getting one ready for submission, I’d nevertheless still agree with Chris. QUT has allowed people for some time to do a “phd by publication” – three refereed journal articles or book chapters strung together with a commentary. I suspect the motivation was to help academics without phds get one quickly. I still think, book publishing aside, there’s merit in doing a sustained research project – anything decent should be able to at least produce one paper out of it. Incidentally, I’m more concerned about what’s happening to the honours thesis. When I did mine at Griffith in 97-98, I had to write a 20,000 word thesis. At UQ now there is an option to do a 10,000 word thesis in the BSocSc(Hons) and the Philosophy and (I think) Politics departments allow people to submit three papers. This is in recognition that Honours is an increasingly marketable qualification on the employment market rather than research training as prepatory for a phd, but it seems to me that with the government’s tight restrictions on completion times for research degrees, it could lead to trouble for students doing it for the traditional reason and their supervisors.

  4. Thanks John. I’d like to come back at this more thoughtfully, but yes, I can’t imagine any better training for a historian than a dissertation. Moreover, I can’t readily conceive of any other canvas that more fully allows for demonstrating “a significant and original contribution to knowledge”. Read narrowly, this can be dumbed down to adding a bit more empirical info (yes, I’ve read Gerard Henderson’s effort). At it’s highest, however, and at least in the context of history, it can mean not only original research, and not only an original way of doing historical research, but also an original way of conveying that research. No other canvas permits, let alone encourages students to strive for originality through the entire (empirical, theoretical and stylistic) range of the practice, and we’d be irredeemably poorer if we lost it, imo. Then again, to invert Andrew’s parting comment,I finished mine.

  5. I’m surprised that you think doing coursework for a PhD is a good idea. Although it might be a good idea in principle, I doubt most departments have the resources to actually run enough decent courses for such students (excluding of course big rich universities, which don’t exist in a lot of countries). Even if they did, then there is also the aspect of taking time away from students completing their PhDs, which is probably one of the reasons why getting a PhD in the US takes more time than countries like Australia.

  6. JFK got a lot of political mileage out of selling his undergraduate thesis, Why England Slept. At the time (1940) it was a pretty topical book – dealing with German rearmament and the response of the English.

  7. The Australian Digital Thesis project (http://adt.caul.edu.au) is beginning to make PhDs available, even if some institutions, such as Monash, refuse to cooperate. Anyone in the humanities who aspires to an academic career will teach during their PhD. This teaching distracts from thesis completion. Research only scholarships should be replaced, at least in part, by scholarships combining research, teaching and teacher training.

  8. “I think an undergraduate thesis in the US is equivalent to an honours thesis here.”

    The general feeling during my time at Cambridge (1972-5) was that a US Masters was roughly equivalent to a British BA or BSc. Of course, Oxford and Cambridge have always taught to Masters level, with that only deferred like a P plate in case the graduate turns out unfit ethically or something (I refused to convert my BA on principled grounds, since they had rolled the fee in and coerced us all into paying it regardless).

  9. PML – yes, my supervisor has an MA Cantab as they say, and told me he had to fork out a few quid for the privilege post BA. I think you’re right about the difference in standards between UK and US universities. My impression is that the coursework years of a US PhD do what Honours is supposed to do in Australia – give you a thorough acquaintance with the discipline you’re studying at an advanced level. Having also taught a lot of US exchange students, I have some real concerns about the quality of undergraduate education in the States. Most of these kids were from the Mid-West and from good schools but their essays overwhelmingly lacked any feel for critical analysis – and they were all sociology majors. My fear with regard to the Australian Honours degree is that it’s being dumbed down – less research focus, fewer genuine advanced coursework subjects offered. I think this is partly due to a lack of resources and partly due to qualification creep as an Honours degree opens the sorts of doors a good pass BA did twenty years ago.

  10. The perils of the PhD
    For the second time in just over a month I agree with John Quiggin on something, that the requirements for a PhD should change. At present, most (though not all) Australian PhDs are purely by dissertation, as compared to the…

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