Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Universities Should Consider Alternative PhD Workflows

English: Mathematics formulas () in a PhD thes...
Mathematics formulas in a PhD thesis (Photo: Wikipedia)
by E. Alana James, Doctoral Net:

When the apprenticeship model breaks down

There are three forces at work which contribute to the lack of PhD completion:

First: the practices upon which the PhD is based started in the middle ages when the only way to learn a new trade was through apprenticeship.

Over the centuries it has remained true that the subtleties of advanced expertise are most easily transferred from human to human as they are intensely interactive. But what happens when there are not enough “experts?”

Universities today pair PhD candidates with a wide range of professorial backgrounds and then spend millions on professional development to ensure these people can fulfill the task to which they are assigned.

Second: the nature of relationships has changed and continues to change more each year. While relationship remains an ideal motivator for many, in modern life, universities cannot count on the professor/ student to pull the PhD through.

Many students only relate with family and friends at that intimate a level. Seldom do we have a mentor who remains an semi constant influence in our lives. Simultaneously many learn and relate to others at a distance using written and interactive media.

The supervisor’s role is one of conflicting priorities. On the one hand aiding the student through the hoops of PhD research process while on the other (and this is what they are paid to do) protecting the university from "sloppy" work.

When this is augmented by what many consider to be the natural arrogance of academia the result may be a poorly trained supervisor, frustrated by his/her inability to bring a student along, deciding that the student is "just not PhD quality."

Third: education is institutionalized and, like all other institutions whose business models were solidified during the industrial revolution, now has trouble of its own such as greater competition, new models of delivery threatening the old, etc.

Believing in the corporate model for education - that the student is our customer and, as such, we should be fully responsible for giving them what they are paying for and to figure out ways to help them meet PhD standards, no matter what it takes.

This article takes a closer look at PhD workflow from the institutional point of view and asks: What if we interrupted the apprentice workflow, implementing technology to enhance availability of resources?

The PhD workflow has already been interrupted: Let's look at the stats over the continuum of service models:

  1. 85-90% of all PhD students from ivy leagues or Oxbridge colleges complete their degree - why? great teachers and little or no part-time students. These rates are augmented by the fact that these are still primarily younger students although they do have some programmes for mature learners.  
  2. 60-75% graduation from Irish universities (over 10 years) which might be the same as the average 50% with a 5 year mean, but it is still quoted as “the best that can be done.” As with the Ivy’s 85% full time and mostly less than 30 years old.
  3. 50% with a 5 year mean is the norm when statistics are taken across degrees and around the world. Some variance is seen within these stats. For instance, business students graduate with higher % and faster than education students who are the slowest and take the longest. Then the bottom of the heap are the online institutions.
  4. 30-40% is a common rate of completion from online universities or from students working primarily at a distance.
Research contributes lower completion rates to: isolation, lack of timely feedback, lack of supervisory skill, personal difficulties, and challenges with funding.  To the extent that the student expected full financial support they may face impediments to completion when they run overtime.

Exploring the Alternatives …

What are the holes in the current apprenticeship based thesis process? Our university partners complain of five major concerns:

  1. Students become lost or confused and slow down. Research demonstrates that the slower the pace the less likely they finish. Many supervisors are not prepared to consistently address these issues.
  2. Research design seems mysterious. The younger student may not have any practical application for their research and so research design takes a lot of time. Methodology is likely new and how all the individual considerations fit together a mystery.
  3. Research is often isolating, especially for the part time student, who may also be online or at a distance.
  4. Students come with a wide range of challenges. The more mature student may not have been in school and may not have the language skills needed. They frequently may need to check in with a professor to keep on track.
  5. Their students are used to 24/7 service on the web exacerbating the apparent distance between this standard and when their professors give feedback on papers.

How a Business Partner Can Help Address These Issues:[i]

Treating the student as an online customer shifts the model and brings about some very interesting options.
  1. Interactive maps guide processes - allowing a variety of media to be pinpointed at the various concerns that develop throughout the thesis process.
  2. Separating  the research design process into its most basic elements, technology can be developed to provide interactive questions and answers which will guide the student. Criteria help them judge their current stage of development as it allows them to explore multiple options before involving university personnel.
  3. International online groups and forums can be guided by professorial consultants to provide consistent quality. Drop in webinars, held at regular intervals create a sense of not having to go it alone and afford the ability to ask questions.
  4. Instant messaging with professorial consultants positioned around the globe offer 24/7 quick feedback to help students keep the pace.
  5. Analytics measure accomplishment of thesis milestones as a ratio over time. Triggers can be set when certain levels of achievement are not met and pace can be accelerated through online group process.

In Conclusion

As internet capacity develops so will the number and variety of tools to which educators have access.

Unfortunately technological infrastructure is expensive to develop and as the edtech arena is growing and changing at an enormous pace, trying to keep up is both daunting and expensive to the university.

Businesses however spread development across multiple customers, making it feasible to stay on top of the curve.

Of course the PhD process cannot be wholly mechanized as too much requires personal mentoring from experienced personnel. Professors learn where the stress points are as they work through committees and examinations with students they supervise.

Thus, retired professors may be the best pool of strategic short term mentoring, to aid struggling students without draining more expensive university resources.

It is still early days in testing the validity of our hypothesis the only through business/ university partnerships will educational institutions be able to meet the needs of their increasingly competitive PhD environment.

Undoubtedly everyone has a lot to learn as common aids develop from what is now a myriad of differences between university guidelines, subtleties between requirements, and thesis structures for academic writing.

Never the less it is a journey better started now than later. Many parts of the developing world desperately need more PhDs to fill the slots for leadership, while in the developed world PhDs move into entrepreneurship and to fill leadership roles across the corporate environment.

The part the businesses have to play supporting Higher Education is still in its infancy and it will be very interesting to see how it develops.

[i] All five are available through university subscription services on

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