Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Examining a PhD

I was talking to a colleague in another university recently about a candidate she had just examined as the internal examiner. Like many internal examiners she didn't know much about the topic - which was a fairly technical topic which non-specialists feel, perhaps erroneously, that they can cope with. So she was reassured to meet the external, and realize that he was a genuine expert - he definitely knew what he was talking about.

From then on, my colleague's sense of reassurance started to disappear. First the external asked if there was any reason why the candidate must pass. He was obviously referring to financial ties with the sponsoring organization. The university administrator mumbled no, of course not, in a rather embarrassed way, and the viva got under way.

It was obvious that the candidate knew little about the topic, and his research seemed to consist of little more than the application of a computer program to his case study. Strangely some of the outputs from this program were negative, in a context where negative number made little sense. It was a bit like estimating the age of some fossils and getting a negative number indicating that the fossils were laid down in the future! The candidate was asked for an explanation. He did not know. He was also asked about the computer program. What models was it based on? Where did the answers come from? Again the candidate obviously did not know.

At the end of the viva the candidate was asked if he had any questions or comments. The candidate's supervisor, sitting listening to the viva, then put his hand up and said, yes, he had something to say. He explained that the reason for negative numbers was that the program was comparing two things. So it was a bit like saying that the fossil was a million years younger than another fossil, which of course made sense. But the candidate did not understand this well enough to explain it himself during the viva.

What to do? My colleague's view was that the candidate should fail, or perhaps be asked to do some extra work and resubmit for an MPhil. At the very least, as well as explaining the negative numbers, she thought the candidate should explain and evaluate the model on which the program was based.

The external, however, disagreed. He thought the candidate was not capable of doing this and so should not be asked. He was the expert. My colleague had no real expertise in the area, and was supporting the home team, so she agreed. The candidate was asked to do a few simple things, tailored to what he was thought to be capable of. He was awarded his PhD a few months later, despite the fact that he really did not know much about the topic.

Does this PhD really mean anything?