22 October 2009

PhD university students: incomplete degrees

Updated May, 2012

In ‘Doctoring the System, 2009, Tara Brabazon makes a list of ten ideas that she believes will create an atmosphere conducive to doctoral students’ completing their degrees and provide valuable information for students, professors, and administration. In general, it appears to be a list that combines both individual traits and the kind that are more about society itself - the structure of the organization and the people in it.

In Item 4, Orientation, Brazabon makes a point of listing “characteristics” of students who didn’t finish their degrees. At the same time, she says that “simply because a student showed one or two of these behavioural markers did not mean they would be unsuccessful.” However, the list of signs itself is a combination of character traits and social circumstances, not solely characteristics of the student alone, so calling it that is not accurate. Perhaps different terms other than ‘characteristics’ and ‘behavioural markers’ could be used, as these imply that the items in the list arise from within the student, are internal to the student, and did not occur due to some event or circumstances nothing to do with the student, or are more about the student being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having such a list makes it easier for the university to place the blame for an incomplete degree on the student rather than looking at other circumstances within the university or related to the thesis supervision itself. This is Brazabon’s list (from Item 4):

change of supervision, suspension, intellectual isolation, movement from full-time to part-time enrolment, irregular meetings with a supervisor, returning to study after a long break, an unsupportive partner or employer and a changing family situation, such as divorce or bereavement (Doctoring the System, 2009).

These may be signs of problems for the student in the future, but they are not characteristics of the student her or himself. A change of supervision may happen because the original supervisor turned out not to be the best for the student’s research, if their knowledge or theoretical approach differed too much from the student’s, for example. Changing from full-time to part-time could be a result of not being able to afford the tuition fees and needing to find work.

Seeing going from full-time to part-time as a character flaw is not helpful, though considering it a socioeconomic one would be. Furthermore, if meetings with their supervisor are irregular, that could be a problem with their working relationship, not simply the student not bothering anymore. Supervisors are human beings too. And while a changing family situation can be temporarily disruptive, for either student or supervisor, it doesn’t have to mean the end. In fact, older students, returning after a long break, are often more committed to getting their degree than younger one working on their first.

I am wondering if there are any statistics on these ideas, or if Brabazock is trying to use a commonsense approach.

The fact that research can be controversial, and in any case could well be political, has not been addressed in the article. Besides the research itself, the students themselves are political subjects immersed in a political environment, where race or nationality, and sex and sexuality are among the sources of conflict that can affect the completion of the research thesis. Worse yet, the decision to go forward with the research my be completely out of the control of the students themselves.

Women’s studies, and other groups vying for power in an environment known for its scarce resources can lead to university not being a pleasant place, without the necessary support, financial and otherwise. I agree with the distinction made by one of the commenters, Paul Davies, that being deemed withdrawn is not the same as a candidate being failed or pushed out. But the consequences can be the same when the ‘deemed withdrawn’ student cannot offer an adequate explanation for potential employers or other universities when applying for jobs or to grad school. An incomplete degree gives the impression that the student was incapable of doing the work or had personality problems, or if the reason given was lack of funding, then it appears as though the withdrawn student either lacked ability or their proposed research was not worthwhile. I'm not sure that the consequences of letting a student down are fully realized by those involved. The results can be devastating and life-changing, to be treated in this manner and left to struggle on with a damaged reputation.

Professors might take this decision thoughtlessly, to end a supervisory relationship for the wrong reasons, perhaps thinking it won’t make any difference. For example, if a student was accepted to enter a PhD program but had not quite finished the dissertation for the MA degree - a requirement in Canada but not in the UK, I understand) - the MA research supervisor may simply decide to quit, not bothering to finish up the research and the defense of it so the student has the MA in hand. Move ahead a few months, and the new university discovers that the PhD never got the MA and isn’t going to. This affects their perception of the student, possibly to the extent that they decide this is one student to let go – by withdrawing support and making it difficult to continue.

If, some time in the near future, the original supervisor realizes he made an error in judgement, and permits the student (now not doing a PhD or able to get work) to complete the MA degree and defend the dissertation research, does that absolve him of any responsibility in the effects to the student of not achieving the MA at the appropriate time in the timeline? If not getting it resulted in the student being pushed out of the PhD program in the next university, so several years later the student finally has the MA degree, but is now past the half-century mark in terms of life cycle, and has gaps in resume and an incomplete PhD, whose responsibility is that?

This story illustrates the concept of pop psychology known as the downward spiral. It explains how a person’s life can start to go downhill, and other people’s mistakes and decisions can contribute towards further spiraling down. In the same way, someone doing well in education and at work can experience the upward spiral, which they would no doubt attribute to their own ability and “characteristics,” whereas the reality is that the more they move upwards, the more likely it is that people will be nice to them, giving them things, access to more resources, and better jobs.

How do people find meaning in life after such adversity, not to mention fulfillment and the chance to contribute to society, especially when their experiences are of the kind many would rather not hear about, or their circumstances don’t appear to be worthwhile trying to improve? Fewer choices and options to reinvent one’s life, as well as limited resources and being on the wrong side of fifty can make it far more difficult than it would be for others.

The article by Tara Brabazon discusses far more than this, but my focus has been only on the one item. See the article, and many insightful comments on the THE page.

Doctoring the system
By Tara Brabazon
THE (Times Higher Education) UK
Oct 22, 2009