Saturday, December 23, 2017

What to Expect When You're Finishing a PhD

Via The Daily Parker, Carter Page, Trump's former foreign policy advisor apparently failed his dissertation defense twice:
Carter Page, Donald Trump’s former foreign policy adviser, accused his British examiners of “anti-Russian bias” after they took the highly unusual step of failing his “verbose” and “vague” PhD thesis, not once but twice.

[Professor Gregory] Andrusz said he had expected it would be “easy” to pass Page, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). He said it actually took “days and days” to wade through Page’s work. Page “knew next to nothing” about social science and seemed “unfamiliar with basic concepts like Marxism or state capitalism,” the professor said.

Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression”, failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision”. He was given 18 months to produce another draft.

Page resubmitted in November 2010. Although this essay was a “substantial improvement” it still didn’t merit a PhD.
But this, I think, is the best part:
After this second encounter, Andrusz and [Dr. Peter] Duncan both resigned as Page’s examiners. In a letter to Soas, they said it would be “inappropriate” for them to carry on following Page’s “accusation of bias” and his apparent attempts to browbeat them. Andrusz said he was stunned when he discovered Page had joined Trump’s team.

Soas refuses to identify the academics who eventually passed Page’s PhD thesis, citing data protection rules.
Getting a PhD isn't easy. There are multiple checks along the way to ensure anyone who makes it to the point of a final dissertation draft is ready. In my program, we had the following steps along the way: 30 course credit hours plus a thesis to earn the master's degree, then an additional 30 credit hours, 1000 hours at an internship (which you could also complete by teaching courses as an adjunct), 4 candidacy exams, and a dissertation proposal and proposal defense before we could even begin working on the dissertation itself.

At any point in the program, people might burn out and leave OR be asked to leave. The point is that, if you survive all of those milestones and make it through the dissertation proposal defense, you're probably ready.

BUT the dissertation is a lot of work, possibly as much as work as the previous steps combined. And making it that far is no guarantee that you'll finish. That would be like giving the PhDs away after making it through the other, less demanding steps. Because the dissertation is not simply a rite of passage. If you're going into a research field, the dissertation is practice for every research project you'll undertake after your degree. So it's not terribly surprising to hear someone made it that far and failed. What's more surprising, to me, is that he didn't burn out or be asked to leave along the way. Based on his prosaic responses to his examiners, I'm amazed he had the drive and abilities to survive all of the other requirements of the degree.

For me, the dissertation proposal defense was much more grueling than the dissertation defense itself. That was the time my committee really expected me to justify my proposed methods, and if I couldn't justify them completely, to accept their suggestions for changes. That was the time they made sure I was tackling the problem in the right way.

At the dissertation defense, they wanted to make sure I had done what I said I would do, and if I did anything differently, that I had a good justification for it. Don't get me wrong, the defense wasn't easy, but there are checks along the way to make sure you only get to that point if you're ready. Obviously, as Page's experiences demonstrate, sometimes people slip through the cracks.

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