Monday, November 7, 2011

Change the PhD

This post is only peripherally related to Rhizomatic Knowledge (so you can skip it if you want ;-)   )

Yesterday evening I was looking over my twitter stream and I saw a post re-tweeted by George Siemens on what to say when someone asks you "should I do a PhD?" This post got me thinking (again) about the differences between a US (or perhaps a North American) PhD program and a UK PhD program.  In the US (and I assume Canada?) PhD programs (that I've looked at anyway) seem to be like a Masters++.  Most programs (again the ones that I have explored) are around 60 credits (which is about the equivalent of 2 Masters Degrees), which include required coursework, elective courses, research methodology courses and a dissertation.  If you enter the PhD program with a Masters degree in the field you can get some coursework waived (but how much is waived is really up to institutional policies).

By contrast a UK PhD, at least my understanding of it from when I was looking at PhD and D.Phil programs in the UK, is much more loosely structured. You apply to the program with a dissertation proposal in hand, so your application evaluation is also an evaluation of your research/dissertation proposal. There are no required courses that every student has to take but rather in consultation with your advisers you do individuals tutorials where you weak areas are assessed and an IEP (individualized educational program) is formed based on both your weak spots and topics that would be useful to your dissertation research.  If you happen to come into the PhD program with a weakness in research methods then you do a one year bootcamp in research methods, you get an M.Phil in research methods, and then you start your PhD work.

While I think that a cohort for PhD programs is a nice thought, think of it as strength in numbers and having a group to bounce ideas off, I am starting to think that the american PhD system is too mechanized, too homogenized and industrialized.  Everyone does (almost) the exact same thing, and even when it comes to electives you only have a limited choice. I think that this tends to prolong PhD programs and it takes some of the creativity out of the PhD.  Also, by entering a PhD without a dissertation proposal in hand it means that you don't start working on your dissertation until after your second year. In many cases (again from programs that I've looked at) the Dissertation Proposal doesn't even come into the picture until after you've passed your qualifying exams.

I think it's time to change our PhD program - not by making them shorter and les rigorous, but rather making them shorter by not treating every PhD student the same - having a IEP for each PhD student, and having them come into a PhD program with a dissertation proposal in hand and approved means that individual tutorials can be more effective and the end (dissertation) is always in mind throughout the curriculum.

your thoughts?
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