Science - November 16, 2007

Opinion: Do weak PhD students get too much help?

This week in Resource a copromotor admitted that he has twice completed a PhD thesis for a student (see ‘I wrote my student’s thesis’). How often does a situation arise in which a supervisor contributes too much to a thesis? And how serious is it if compassion plays a part in the decision whether to let a badly performing candidate continue?

Professor Just Vlak, chair of Virology and former chair of Production Ecology & Resource Conservation graduate school
‘In my experience we are not talking about large numbers. I would guess one or two out of every fifty PhDs. The real problems arise towards the end of the PhD trajectory. At that point both PhD candidate and the promotor are in a bind. It’s in the interest of both to get the PhD finished. You have to make sure that it doesn’t get that far. That’s why it’s a good idea to evaluate early on in the process whether someone is PhD material or not.

‘Especially towards the end quite a bit of help is sometimes necessary. When it comes to writing the introduction and the discussion, PhD students have to show what they are capable of themselves. Many don’t manage that without help; some even need a lot of help. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are incompetent. Often it’s just that they don’t have the writing skills, but they have done a good piece of research.

‘It’s impossible to completely prevent the possibility of a situation arising of someone needing too much guidance. It remains the supervisor’s personal decision as to whether putting more time into a PhD thesis is the right thing to do. I think it’s a matter of the graduate schools making sure they instruct supervisors well.’

Professor Arnold Bregt, chair of Geo-information Science
‘I supervised an Egyptian PhD student who certainly earned his title himself, but it cost him a superhuman effort. He had all the right qualifications and had a full grant from the Egyptian government. Once he arrived here, though, it turned out that he was behind with his work. We quickly came to the conclusion that time was going to be tight. But he set to work with incredible dedication, did MSc courses alongside his PhD work, and worked night and day and weekends as well.

‘It was only in his third year that he admitted that in his Egyptian contract there was a clause that he would have to pay everything back if he did not get his PhD. On the basis of his expected salary we worked out that it would take him at least fifty years to do that. It’s an unacceptable construction, but at that moment you really want to help someone. You’ve built up a relationship.

‘I also told him honestly that I couldn’t guarantee him anything, but I did spend more time on supervising him, more than with other PhDs. But he wrote the thesis himself. After consultation the subject of the thesis was changed to spatial data sharing. It ended up being a very original and innovative piece of work and the PhD committee even gave it a ‘good’.

‘The man returned to his country with a doctorate, but afterwards I heard from someone else that he had problems keeping his job, because it was not the exact subject that was stated in his contract. For me, this is in the category of ‘once and never again’. Now I always ask candidates if they have a pay-back clause in their contract. Those candidates don’t even start. It’s inhuman. It must be possible for things to go wrong during PhD research. The pressure must never be so high that it paralyses creative thinking.’

Professor Linus van der Plas, chair of Plant Physiology
‘I can imagine two reasons why a supervisor does too much work on a thesis. One would be where supervision takes up so much time that the supervisor decides at a certain point that it would be quicker to do the work himself. A tool like track changes makes this very easy to do. The other would be if the PhD student is really having a bad time and unable to get out of it alone.

‘Although the first scenario is worse than the second, the point in both cases is that the promotor must be absolutely sure that the student has shown that he deserves to get a doctorate.
I have rejected a PhD thesis three times as a member of a PhD committee. They were all foreign candidates who were under great time pressure to finish their thesis. That is very difficult. It means of course loss of face as well. But you can’t make concessions in the minimum requirements for theses for these kinds of reasons.’

Gab van Winkel, secretary of the WIAS (animal sciences) graduate school
‘It shouldn’t happen, but I know there have been incidents. Especially foreign PhD students and their supervisors are sometimes under enormous pressure. First of all social pressure: loss of face is a far more serious issue in some countries than it is for us. I know for instance of a case where a PhD student was told after a few months that he was not suitable. He didn’t dare go home. Sometime later he was spotted at the station in Rotterdam. We suspect that he stayed on illegally in Europe.

‘A PhD that goes wrong can also have considerable financial consequences. An Iranian funding programme for example requires that you return with a doctorate. If you don’t, you have to pay back the whole grant. You even run the risk of going to jail if you can’t.

‘I’m not saying that this is a reason to award someone a PhD that they don’t deserve, but you are sometimes faced with extremely difficult decisions as a supervisor. I hope that the new regulation with the go-no go decision in the first year will be a way of prevent this kind of personal drama.’

Leonie Cramer, PhD student in the Economics of Consumers and Households group, member of the PhD Council in Wageningen and member of the board of the PhD Network of the Netherlands (PNN):
‘I think we are only talking about an incident, but it is a signal that we should take very seriously. The quality of the title of doctor is something that has to be maintained. Carrying out research independently is fundamental to a PhD, and writing a thesis is proof of that ability.

‘If you don’t deserve the title, a PhD won’t be any good to you anyway if you want to continue with research. Of course it’s very difficult to distinguish clearly between contributions to publications, but the thesis should not be proof of the competence of the whole research group.’

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