|Professor Lionel Bently|
This Kat has asked a few questions to illustrious and learned Katfriends Lionel Bently (University of Cambridge), Eoin O'Dell (Trinity College Dublin), and Estelle Derclaye (University of Nottingham).
So here we go with some questions:
What are you looking for in a PhD thesis when you examine it?
Eoin : I am looking in the main for three things. First, originality. The usual criterion for a PhD is that it must make a substantial contribution to the literature in the area; and I believe that it best does so by being original, and not derivative or repetitive of the existing literature. This is an intangible quality, but it is by far the most important one. Second, I am looking for a sophisticated understanding of, and engagement with, a wide range of research materials - this is demonstrated not only by comprehensive footnotes and bibliography, but also by the quality of the commentary on it. This is less intangible than originality, and it can mostly be achieved by hard work, good research, and several drafts. But it is an essential pre-condition for the development of original thoughts. Third, I am looking for good writing. It doesn't matter how original the ideas are, or how good the research is, if the writing gets in the way. The best theses eschew jargon and vernacular for relatively short, grammatical, sentences - and for a good structure which sets out the material in a coherent fashion, building the original argument step by logical step.
Estelle : As an examiner, either internal or external, I look for a clear hypothesis, clear limitations and methodology all set out in the introduction. As to the thesis itself: originality, clarity, structure, links between chapters. Readibility is very important too - namely a clear, flowing style, although that does not prevent having a personal tone. Avoid overlong sentences and paragraphs, and long-winded arguments. Be precise and concise. The examiner and for that matter any reader must be able to follow the hypothesis throughout the whole thesis.
|Professor Eoin O'Dell|
Eoin : There has been a definite improvement in the mechanical things - like getting citations right (most theses now use OSCOLA), finding relevant current materials (most universities have good online subscriptions), and going through various drafts, improving writing, structure and range of material (a good first year programme teaches these kinds of things). There has also been a change in the average candidate, with more good recent graduates, and fewer later-career lawyers. And there has been an improvement in the quality of supervision, with greater ongoing involvement by supervisors. All of this has certainly improved the polish of the output. In terms of the three things I identified in response to the question above, this means that the second and third have definitely improved. On these levels, the quality of the average thesis can be said to have improved. However, I don't think that the intangible quality of originality has improved, and in the end, that's what makes a great thesis.
Eoin : Yes, but I have done so. It's difficult to fail a thesis because there is almost an expectation that after 3-to-4 years of work, the outcome is pre-ordained. But it is nevertheless necessary to do so, to maintain the integrity of the system, if the work as submitted is simply not redeemable. The various options open to an examiner, of passing a PhD, requiring minor changes, requiring major changes, and awarding a Masters-level degree instead, make failing unlikely. But it is a possible outcome, and occasionally it is a necessary one.
Estelle : So far I have never had to fail a thesis. It has to be pretty bad for one to do so. Any normally constituted supervisors would not let their student go to the first line of battle without a reasonably good armour. But some systems may allow students to submit without the agreement of the supervisor so it may happen that a thesis is not worthy of passing even with corrections and must be failed. In any case, most British universities generally offer a MPhil to the candidates who do not meet the requirements of the PhD so failing is rare. But the possibility of failing a thesis is there and I think it is important rules allow for it to sustain the quality of PhD theses and the integrity of the system.
Eoin : It depends. Sometimes, it's at the admission stage, when an unworkable thesis is admitted. Sometimes, it's at the end of the first year, where most universities have a confirmation/transfer system, and it's not properly used. Sometimes, the candidate goes awry (commonly not enough time to devote to the thesis, for personal or economic reasons). Sometimes, there has been insufficient supervision. Sometimes, all these things work, and the examiners are still not convinced.
|Not to worry: |
accelerated heart rate is perfectly normal
when undergoing a PhD examination
(especially if you are not the examiner)
Eoin : I would like to see greater funding for candidates, so that any teaching or other work they take is directly related to their research, thus allowing sufficient time for the thesis.
Estelle : I like the British system, it is a real oral exam with the outcome unknown in advance, unlike in some other countries. It allows to check if the candidate really wrote the thesis which is of course crucial. It also allows the examiners to see how the candidate can defend their work and to highlight weaknesses here and there and give suggestions for improvement in view of publication. It is a really useful process for the student in my view.
|The real feelings |
behind a re-submission request
Eoin : Inside academia the PhD is now seen as the vocational qualification for an academic, in the same way as a solicitor's or barrister's qualification is the vocational qualification for a practitioner. If the programme is well structured, especially in the first year, then the skills will be designed to be transferrable and marketable. They are increasingly also transferrable and marketable in specialist practice.
Estelle : I think the hard work that goes in a PhD thesis, the rigour, the research skills, the critical abilities, the attention to detail, the sheer knowledge acquired, gives great skills to a doctoral candidate. These skills are transferable to any job, and definitely to a practising lawyer. Sadly, as far as I know, it is maybe not always recognised by practitioners but maybe times are changing ... Of course, these skills are definitely those you need to acquire to be an academic, apart of course from the teaching skill. I'd say to the doctoral candidates that they should take advantage of the possibility they are offered to do a bit of teaching and to take as many courses as they can that their alma mater is offering while studying for the PhD as they are generally free and generally gives them additional transferable skills. There are of course those relating to the PhD - how to work with long documents, how to survive the viva, how to give presentations - but there are lots of other courses which can bring new, transferable, skills. So if what a student is after is to maximise their marketability, that's the way to do it.