Science - March 4, 2010

Propositions course for doctoral students

The standard of the propositions in PhD theses is going down. But the research schools are not keen on the idea of a masterclass.

In Dutch, a position at war is the same word as the short, pithy statement as part of a thesis in the Natherlands...
The standard of the propositions in Wageningen PhD theses is poor. So doctoral students should follow a course, says Professor Paul Struik of the Doctorate Board. He is the quality watchdog on the board.
Struik has been irritated for quite some time about the falling standard of the propositions. 'They have clearly become something that you just have to toss off quickly as a compulsory extra. I see some propositions which make me think: the professors have not spent half an hour looking at this. There has not been any serious debate about it. And this then undermines any inclination to address the propositions seriously during the graduation ceremony.
According to PhD regulations, the supervisor is responsible for the content of the thesis, including the propositions. But the professors do not do their work properly on this point, says Struik frankly. 'And that is because they do not really see the value of it.  Coming up with the propositions is just compulsory homework.'

To address this problem, the Doctorate Board proposes that the research schools should organize a course or a masterclass. Rector Martin Kropff has suggested this in a letter to the professors. Struik: 'The schools are responsible for their doctoral students' education.' But the research schools are not keen. In a discussion among the secretaries of the schools, there was a lot of laughter about the proposal, says Fré Pepping (VLAG research school).  Pepping does not see the use of a masterclass. 'The professors are responsible for this, but it does not interest them at all. That is what you have to do something about.'
Pepping says that the university should first answer the question of whether the propositions should not be ditched. 'Should we still be carrying on with this relic of the past?  Why do we stick to it if the professors do not want to take any responsibility for it?'  Whether the research schools will organize a masterclass remains to be seen. The directors of the schools have yet to discuss the issue.
Struik knows that there is not much interest, but he thinks a course would send a message to supervisors that propositions are taken seriously.  'Personally, I hope that professors will start to enjoy it. It is just really nice for a doctoral candidate to sum up your work and your opinion in a couple of strong propositions. And it should be a nice challenge for professors to coach their doctoral students in doing so.'

African sayings
A proposition is a short, pithy statement of a clear and defensible opinion. The rule for Wageningen theses is that they should contain at least six and a maximum of eight propositions. Two of these should be about the researcher's own work, two to four about another scientific field, and two should be about a 'socially relevant topic'. It is particularly the latter propositions (sometimes jokingly known as party propositions) that many doctoral students do not take seriously enough, according to Struik. Propositions have to be original. 'So quotations are not allowed. Nor are Chinese proverbs, African sayings or quotes from Einstein.' Other offences are: obvious statements which are not debatable, indecent language, propositions with a religious slant, poor formulation and the use of brand names.