The Trinity PhD: How does excellence evolve? Dean of Graduate Studies, TCD. February 4, 2009

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1 The Trinity PhD: How does excellence evolve? Dean of Graduate Studies, TCD February 4, Introduction While the title of PhD has been around for centuries, the first PhD as recognised today was awarded in Germany in the late nineteenth century [1]. Yale University awarded the first U.S. PhD in 1861, for a research programme of one year s duration and a thesis that was six pages long. In 2006, almost 150 years later, Yale annouced a plan to review all its PhD programmes with a view to reducing their duration to six or seven years [2]. Clearly, the PhD has already evolved quite extensively, but never before has there been such debate and attention focussed on the nature and purpose of the award. Within this context, the current and future status of the Trinity PhD is explored. Trinity College Dublin (TCD) was the first university in Ireland to appoint a Dean of Graduate Studies and to establish a graduate studies office. Currently two types of doctoral degrees are awarded: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which is our flagship research qualification; and several professional doctorates (e.g., in fields such as Medicine and Psychology) which have a more applied focus. The focus of this paper is on the Trinity PhD, first awarded in the mid-1930 s. The aims are to: 1. emphasise the supremacy of research excellence in the award of the Trinity PhD 2. stimulate debate about the format, purpose and future evolution of the Trinity PhD 3. disseminate information about the Trinity PhD amongst TCD staff and students 4. explain the Trinity PhD to external entities 1

2 In recent years, doctoral degrees have come under intense scrutiny with respect to their quality, format and purpose. With more people completing third level education than in previous generations, the numbers choosing to do a Masters or PhD degree is concomitantly higher. These raised expectations, along with an increasing emphasis by many governments (including Ireland s) on what is often referred to as the knowledge society, have given rise to great opportunities and challenges for education providers at fourth level. In response to these forces for change, some countries have begun to redefine the PhD and to introduce new types of doctoral degrees. While a more structured approach to doctoral education has clear benefits, there are also concerns that the PhD itself could be diminished or dumbed-down if the right balance is not achieved. In the United Kingdom, for example, the three-year limit imposed for PhD programmes along with an increasing emphasis on developing research skills rather than discovering new knowledge, has led many to express concerns that the British PhD has been seriously devalued [3]. As part of the Bologna process, which aims to make European Higher Education programmes more compatible and comparable, the European Universities Associate (EUA) adopted 10 basic principles of doctoral education to provide a framework for open discussion of the issues within the EU. These Salzburg Principles reinforce the importance of advancing knowledge through original research as the core component of doctoral training. While most doctoral candidates will find employment outside of academia, this does not in any way diminish the value of excellence in research nor the contribution of these individuals to society. However, the need for innovative structures, diversity, increased mobility, critical mass, appropriate arrangements for supervision and assessment, career planning and other supports is acknowledged. 2 The Trinity Structured PhD All regulations governing the award of postgraduate degrees are published in the Calendar, Part 2 [4]. In particular, it specifies that the Trinity PhD is awarded to those who have been able to demonstrate: a systematic comprehension of a field of study and mastery of the skills and methods of research associated with that field; that they have the ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity, rigour and discrimination, which may involve the development of new skills, techniques, tools or materials; that they are capable of critical 2

3 analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas; that they have made a significant contribution through original research which extends the frontiers of knowledge by developing a body of work, some of which merits publication in national or international refereed publications; that they can communicate with their peers, the larger scholarly community and with society in general about their areas of expertise in a sustained and exact manner; that they can be expected to be able to promote, with due regard to ethical considerations, within academic contexts, scientific, technological, social or cultural advancement. In recent years, more defined structures have been put in place in TCD to support all PhD students - therefore, all new entrants to the research register are considered to be on a structured PhD programme, of which the degree of structure varies between, or even within, schools. By devolving the design and management of programmes to the schools, while offering guidance and stability from the centre, we aim to achieve the ideal balance between structure and flexibility.in TCD, a structured PhD is defined to be one within which: A student is registered for a period of 4 years maximum (or 6 years in the case of a part-time candidate) A student is required to undergo a rigorous transfer or confirmation examination during within their first 18 months (extended by 1 year if part-time) A student can avail of skills training and advanced disciplinary modules during the course of their degree, up to a specified limit (currently 30 ECTS in total prior to transfer/confirmation) The level of structure provided to support all research students centrally is as follows: A limit of 4 years maximum on the full-time research register has been approved from Oct 08 - continuation on the register after this period must be recommended by the school (previously, 5 years were allowed and extension only required the supervisor s recommendation). All new research students enter by default on the conditional PhD register from Oct 08 (previously, all entered on the masters register by default). All research students must undergo a rigorous transfer or confirmation examination during the 2nd year of their research degree. The format 3

4 of this exam has been clearly defined and implemented for the past 3 years (previously, transfer was mainly based on the recommendation of the supervisor). Transferable skills training courses, workshops and summer schools are available for all research students, both at a local and inter-institutional level. An approval, tracking and accreditation process is being developed to support the development of such modules. Advanced disciplinary modules are being developed both locally and across the Dublin institutions to support structured programmes, for which the above process will also apply. A framework for interinstitutional PhD programmes is being put in place, in collaboration with the Deans of Graduate Studies in the other Irish institutions. In addition, many schools and interdisciplinary groups have added more structure to their PhD programmes and an approval process has been put in place for these additional requirements. Several handbooks already exist, and from Oct 08 an explicit reference has been added to the calendar to give additional weight to these requirements. We strongly believe that disciplinary flexibility is vital to maintaining quality and wish to avoid a one size fits all approach to graduate education. By devolving the design and management of programmes to the schools, while offering guidance and stability from the centre, we aim to achieve the ideal balance between structure and flexibility. Three levels of structure for PhDs are are currently in practice in TCD: 1. Several named structured programmes exist or are planned, including the existing PhDs in Molecular Medicine (in place for 3 years), Political Science (in place for 10 years) and Neuroscience (in place for 3 years); new programmes in 2008 include TCC (texts, contexts, cultures) and LERO; Indigo (funded by Irish Aid) has been approved, the Eurolife consortium PhD programme is in the advanced stages of planning; other named programmes are at various stages of planning or implemented informally. Named programmes can be interdisciplinary and cut across both schools and faculties - nevertheless, a student is always registered in the school in which their primary supervisor is based. Hence, the home school and discipline is ultimately responsible for the student. 4

5 2. Several schools run what are essentially structured programmes - e.g., Chemistry (DubChem with UCD) and Physics both require their students to take modules prior to transferring to the PhD register, and have been doing so for many years. Computer Science and Statistics have introduced requirements for research skills and discipline-specific modules to taken by all research students from Oct 08; The school of nursing have a set of supporting structures in place for over 3 years, tailored to the particular needs of their PhD students (many of whom are also staff - this is a developing subject at PhD level). The school of business have structures in place for mandatory seminars, structured transfer procedures and assignments for over 10 years. 3. Schools or groups within schools have a variety of structured elements in place that are available to their students, e.g., regular seminars that students must attend; courses available from taught M.Scs; special transfer requirements etc Several schools are actively developing programmes in specialised areas and are willing to develop more defined structures. TCD will continue to support this flexibility, while streamlining the processes for all such students, especially in cases where many students are off-campus or part-time. All schools will be required to produce a handbook that outlines the discipline specific elements of their PhD Programmes. 3 Future challenges Currently, the needs of students with disabilities or other special circumstances (e.g., disadvantage) are handled on a case by case basis, and College has an excellent track record in supporting such students. For example, the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) has seen the first of its students achieve a doctorate degree in July However, state funding for postgraduate students is significantly lower for such students, and it should be acknowledged that additional supports and arrangements must be put in place to ensure a level playing field. The boundaries of doctoral research are expanding and questions relating to what constitutes PhD research vs. professional doctorates are continuously arising. College must engage in active debate in order to be responsive in a rapidly changing world, while protecting the core principles of excellence in research and scholarship. For example, when does a PhD become a professional doctorate and vice versa? Can the composition of a symphony constitute original research and, if so, how can this be objectively evaluated. We must at the very least engage in such discussions and develop clear policies that are regularly revisited. 5

6 Similarly, the standard formats for the written thesis are also evolving internationally - giving rise to many questions relating to the extent to which publications should be integrated, bound theses (as in the Scandinavian model), extent and format of other materials (e.g., software, musical scores) with respect to the thesis itself. Consideration should also be given to revising the format of the viva voce examination itself and perhaps consider whether it should become more public, as in many other countries. Potential benefits include the celebration of successful PhD completions and the fostering of a research culture amongst research students. The challenges and opportunities afforded by increased emphasis on the creation of a knowledge society and the role of PhD students in that process - e.g., in creating new business opportunities - needs to be considered: what implications does this have on the design of structured PhDs? Finally, how do we measure the quality and excellence of PhD outputs. In the UK, the emphasis appears to be entirely focussed on the quality of the process, rather than that of the research itself - whereas both are important: quality processes should enhance and support PhD research. How can we measure and celebrate the quality of PhD research and ensure that our processes are improving the quality of the research and the overall PhD experience? References [1] J. Wellington, A.M. Bathmaker, C. Hunt, G. McCullough, and P. Sikes. Succeeding with your doctorate. Sage, London, [2] S. Jaschik. Finishing the Ph.D. Inside Higher Ed (insidehighered.com), April [3] A. Mroz. British doctorates in the dock. Times Higher Education Supplement, Dec [4] TCD. The University of Dublin Calendar Part 2. http : // Studies/calendarpartii/. 6

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