no thesis no more?!
“The traditional goal is to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to conduct independent research on a novel concept and to communicate the results in an accessible way. Where the academics differ is on how best to achieve that goal.”
Nature had an editorial and more on the changing nature of the PhD thesis and the possible abandonment of the thing. This is an interesting if radical proposal. There are many cases of highly successful research careers that bypassed the PhD station. Take for instance Julian Besag. On the one hand, what matters most for granting a PhD is the ability to produce independent research that is innovative enough. For this purpose, publication in a serious scientific journal is the right filter. (Serious as opposed to predatory.) Asking referees to review a thesis when the chapters have been published and hence refereed sounds like a waste of time. Nature also mentions the issue of the oral defence, which varies a lot across countries and institutions from inexistent to highly formal. If the relevance of the oral defence is to assess the ability of the candidate to present one’s work in an understandable manner, conferences should do. Except that talks are never assessed. If a speaker is poor, he or she may not get invited again by those who attended the talk. May. But this is somewhat secondary in that examples abound of geniuses who were or are unable to deliver good lectures, with no consequence on the quality of their research and collaborations. Collaborations is actually a sensitive aspect, as more and more papers that make the PhD thesis are written jointly. Evaluations of the contribution of the PhD candidate then get delicate, especially when several PhDs are involved. (I used to refrain from co-signing publications with my students during their thesis, but I have loosened this rule in the past years as I find myself more involved in some projects and hence more eager or impatient to see the outcome completed!)
On the other hand, a PhD thesis may help in getting students to focus on broader issues, when compared with published short papers on marginal improvements in quick succession. But this may not be enough of an incentive. The status of the PhD student is also somewhat unique and provides a buffer between studies and research position, where the student gradually morphs into a researcher (or gives up). If we were to abandon the PhD thesis, there would need to be some equivalent structure to give them status and financial support. However, most places accommodate graduate researchers and the ability to support them for variable periods. It would just mean adjusting for longer durations and some degree of protection…
[The above picture is copied from the site theses.fr that compiles theses published in France and produces some basic statistics, which are all wrong in my case!]