Calls to modernize the PhD to meet the demands of the job market are being answered by the introduction of a more streamlined three-year PhD program. But such changes are not necessarily in the best interests of students, say Alice Risely and Adam Cardilini
PhD students are the backbone of the research industry, often responsible for compiling precious datasets for their lab and learning the cutting-edge techniques required for analysis. But completing a PhD is hard, and getting harder as scientific standards creep steadily upwards. It takes over a year longer for current students to publish their first scientific paper than those 30 years ago because of the increasing data requirements of top journals. Across Europe and Australia, this is one reason why students are taking an average of four to six years (or longer) to complete their PhDs, despite candidature contracts usually being a maximum of four years, and government scholarships lasting at most three and a half years.
Delays in completion reflect badly on universities, and can threaten future funding. They can also threaten the job prospects of graduates, who are increasingly expected to have excellent time and project management skills for careers outside academia. In an attempt to combat lagging completion times and increase employability of graduates, universities are redesigning the PhD by rolling out three-year PhD programs. These shorter programs are intended to provide increased structural support to students, whilst also promoting broader and more applied skills required by non-academic employers. The catch is that these PhDs must be completed within three years, unless the student faces project delays that were unequivocally beyond their control. But is the three-year PhD program really in the best interests of all, or even most, students?
Are three-year PhDs competitive?
A common argument against three-year PhDs is that they do not produce graduates who are competitive in the global market. Under the new model, supervisors are expected to take a much stronger role in project development, decreasing the opportunities for candidates to develop these critical skills, which are valuable for careers in both academia and industry. In addition, these pre-planned projects must be low-risk to ensure candidate success, limiting their scope and potential novelty.
Competitive PhD students must also publish high quality papers. Yet publishing takes time, frequently up to six months or a year from first submission to a journal. Students must therefore be submitting papers in their second and third years to have any chance of finishing their PhD with publications. Realistically, this means having collected appropriate data (and developing the field/laboratory/data mining skills this entails), learned the appropriate analyses, and cohesively written up a number of manuscripts by the end of their second year at the latest. This is certainly possible in some cases, but only with a huge amount of support, and likely some degree of luck.
Many of the specialist skills that are now required at the cutting-edge of scientific fields, like bioinformatics, statistical modelling, and computer programming, can take years to learn to a high level of sophistication. Each generation of PhD students must assume the mantle of learning the increasingly complex skills required to push the frontiers of their field, meaning that data collection and analysis take up an increasing proportion of time of a PhD program. These hurdles in methodology exist, and cannot always be handily manipulated to fit a three year time frame without drastically reducing the quality of research outcomes.
Unless candidates have solid experience in research and publishing prior to starting their PhD (which is increasingly encouraged), completing a PhD within three years is unlikely to happen without compromising on at least some aspects of candidate outcomes and quality, whether it be candidate autonomy, data quality, discipline skills, or papers published. More broadly, whether such pre-planned, low-risk and highly supported projects enable the candidate to make ‘a significant original contribution to knowledge’ (which we feel is a fair definition of a PhD), is debatable. Potential employers, particularly within academia, are likely to recognise this.
Few current obligations to provide effective support
For a PhD to be completed in three years, the level of supervision and university support students receive must be increased. The lagging completion times are already arguably the result of a system that does not give enough support to PhD candidates. Will universities be able to increase student support to the level required?
Some universities are setting up online tools for new candidates to help them build up applied skills. Yet supervisors will always be the biggest provider of support and the best guide through a PhD. Although supervisors at many universities are now required to undergo supervisor training courses, so far most universities do not enforce accountability for supervisors who do not provide enough support to students.
Moreover, supervisors have many other academic obligations, and are often under immense time pressure themselves. Is it realistic or fair to expect supervisors to dramatically increase their level of support to candidates to ensure they finish within three years? Although supervisors should categorically provide structured support to their students under any circumstances, increasing this obligation to include detailed project planning and coursework not only encroaches on the student’s autonomy, but reduces supervisor productivity. Yet unless supervisors are required to meet such standards, the onus will ultimately be on the inexperienced student to navigate the increasing challenges of a PhD in a shorter time frame.
A combination of reduced autonomy and increased time pressure will have far-reaching negative effects on students, impacting their academic fulfilment, career decisions, productivity and mental health. There remains a pervasive negative stigma around depression and attrition of PhD candidates, with those who admit to being unhappy quietly deemed as not suitable for academia. Yet the evidence points towards external influences such as supervisor quality, faculty support, student autonomy and inadequate funding as being important drivers of poor mental health, attrition and academic success in graduate students.
Although providing a more structured PhD program is a step in the right direction, categorically reducing funding and timeframes increases the already unsustainable pressure on candidates, and may exacerbate the current epidemic of poor mental health and high dropout rates amongst graduate students around the world.
Ultimately, the three-year PhD is a program that puts extra pressure on inexperienced students, with few formal obligations currently in place for those that implement it. This is not only arguably unethical, but unproductive.
There is a real need for PhD programs to actively support candidates completing timely PhDs whilst maintaining good career and mental health outcomes for the student. The three-year PhD program may indeed work well for some candidates in some fields, especially those with strong industry links. However, universities that consider the program should acknowledge that it may result in negative effects on PhD quality, student satisfaction, and student mental health unless given more flexibility.
Progressive solutions that target known drivers of student success, such as improving supervisor training, academic culture, student support networks and flexible funding opportunities, combined with contracts of four years, will improve student outcomes whilst providing strong incentives for candidates to finish in a timely manner. Cutting off funding at a point where PhD students are at their most productive hurts both the university and the student. Instead, we should be working together to find solutions where everybody wins.
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Alice Risely is currently completing a PhD in ecology. She studies the link between animal migration, pathogen transmission and gut bacteria.
Dr. Adam Cardilini finished a PhD in ecological genetics in 2016. He is now an associate lecturer in Work Integrated Learning.