Friday, 23 April 2010

Examining a PhD - Collegiate versus commercial models

Having examined dozens of PhD theses in many different universities, I had a surprising experience late last year. I was asked to examine a fairly technical economics PhD at another UK university - which will remain nameless to avoid any additional embarrassment. The thesis itself was pretty good, and the internal examiner was extremely thorough. In the end, after the formal viva, we agreed a few minor changes and corrections, and quite soon I heard that the student had done what was required and the thesis was approved. So far so good.

However, the overall examination process was not quite what I had expected, in that the department made no effort to look after me in the way departments normally do, e.g. by providing opportunities to meet other staff, renewing old acquaintances, and the like. My wife thought I was just complaining about the absence of a nice lunch - partly true but not wholly fair. So why was I making such a big deal out of this?

Well, as many of you will understand, examining a PhD is one of the many things we do that both consumes a lot of time (easily 2-3 days per PhD) and is hardly rewarded at all - in this case I was offered the minimal fee of just over £100. Thus such examining is part of what I have described before as the collegial aspect of university life; and it seems to me that when you're doing a favour for another institution, they should look after you properly. As I see it, this is part of the 'implicit contract'. The alternative is to examine a PhD as a commercial activity, where you simply do a piece of work for a fee with no expectation of any personal contact with the department concerned. But in that case, a more reasonable fee might have been around £1000. Thus the institution referred to above seemed to me to be operating a commercial model of the examination process, but they were doing so very much 'on the cheap'.

As soon as the viva was over, therefore, I wrote to the relevant Vice-Principal at the university in question to complain about the casual manner in which I had been treated, and sketching out some of the above points. After a short investigation, I was pleased to receive a comprehensive apology, and an assurance that external examiners would be much better treated in future. I have since also met some members of the department who took the opportunity to apologise individually. So all ended well.

This experience does, though, highlight an important issue. Much of what academics do, both for their own institution and for others, relies on goodwill and a continuing support for collegiate ideals of how universities ought to function. But this goodwill can be undermined in many ways - both by individual incentives and performance indicators that might oblige academics to prioritise their time differently from in the past; and, as in this example, by a basic lack of courtesy, kindness and appreciation of what we do. Yet I rather doubt whether many of us really want move to a purely commercial model for the provision of extra-institutional services, and I also doubt whether our institutions would like to pay the resulting high fees!

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