University

The final battle for your dissertation

How lenient is the dissertation committee?

Dissertation committees at the University of Tilburg have faced scrutiny for awarding doctorates willy-nilly. Could that happen at the RUG? ‘There’s certainly an incentive to approve a dissertation even when you’re hesitant.’
By Giulia Fabrizi / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Imagine you’re a professor. A friendly co-worker asks you look over a dissertation written by one of her PhD students. You read it and conclude that it leaves a thing or two to be desired. Will you tell your colleague that the dissertation, which their PhD worked hard on for four years, isn’t up to par, causing the latter at least a six-month delay, or will you give it back with a few stern notes in the margin?

In December, the faculty of philosophy at Tilburg University started an investigation into the quality of 77 PhD dissertations. All were published between 2010 and 2016 under the supervision of a single professor.

The investigation started when radio show Argos called the faculty a ‘PhD factory’ because it produced a surprisingly high number of external doctoral candidates. Supervisors received hefty bonuses for each candidate promoted.

In a ‘PhD factory’, financial gain works as an incentive to graduate as many doctoral candidates as possible. That sounds simpler than it actually is; before a candidate can call themselves doctor, an independent assessment committee has to approve their dissertation.

Is it possible that professors on these committees help each other out by occasionally looking the other way? Could this be happening at the RUG too? The UKrant spoke to several professors about it.

Control

The assessment committee must judge whether a dissertation is good enough to earn its writer the title of doctor. How strict the committee is about quality depends on who’s on it.

If you’re particularly malicious, you can put together a committee that won’t be very critical

‘If you’re particularly malicious, you can put together a committee that won’t be very critical of the dissertation’, says Maarten Duijvendak, professor of economic, social, and regional history at the RUG. ‘But I think there are plenty of safeguards in place. The people in the committee do have to be approved by the dean.’

However, the student’s supervisor is usually the one who picks the committee members, sometimes in consultation with their co-workers. ‘The supervisor sends their committee proposal to the dean’, says Jan-Wouter Zwart, director of the Graduate School for the Humanities and professor of linguistics. ‘It’s expected that the dean accepts this proposal.’

According to Zwart, the dean usually isn’t able to check up on the selected members. ‘They can have a cursory look at them, but because they’re not familiar with every single department, it’s hard to say which people are suited to the committee and which aren’t.’

That means the student’s supervisor has got quite a lot of control over the assessment of their student’s dissertation. Does that increase the chances of forming a lenient committee? Most professors say it doesn’t.

‘It’s not in the best interest of the PhD candidate to do so’, says Pauline Westerman, director of the Graduate School of Law and professor of philosophy of law. ‘They would benefit from having people on the committee who know the field and are interested in it. That’s how a dissertation can become more well-known.’

Aggressive

But PhD candidates aren’t the only ones who benefit from an uncritical approval. Depending on the total number of candidates, faculties earn approximately sixty to eighty thousand euros for each doctor they produce.

The financial incentive for professors is small

‘That’s primary funding, though’, says Marc van der Maarel, director of the Graduate School of Science and Engineering. At certain faculties, professors receive a personal contribution to their research budget. ‘But the financial incentive for professors is small, because the contribution never exceeds ten thousand euros. That’s not even enough for an extra researcher.’

Another consideration is that professors in the same field often know each other well and associate with each other outside of work as well. Is it easier to look the other way if you know that the supervisor of the dissertation you’re reading might be deciding whether to approve of a grant request in the future? ‘We’re pretty aggressive around here’, says professor of theoretical high-energy physics Eric Bergshoeff. ‘If someone spots a mistake, they’ll give you hell for it. No one’s going “I know him, so I’ll go easy on him”. It’s a pretty harsh process, and you have to have thick skin.’

Negative assessment

Professors may claim to be agressive, but very few of them actually will actually reject a dissertation. ‘Committees usually aren’t keen on returning a negative assessment’, says Zwart. ‘It’s usually pretty clear when a dissertation isn’t good enough, but there’s certainly an incentive to approve of it even when you’re hesitant. I’ve never experienced this, but the system might cause readers to tend to approve of a dissertation because they need the PhD candidate themselves the next year.’

The system might cause readers to approve

Of the seven professors the UKrant spoke with, only one has ever returned a negative assessment. Others find ways to avoid doing so. ‘I once excused myself because I disagreed with how the entire dissertation was set up’, Westerman explains.

She says she decided to withdraw instead of delivering a negative assessment. ‘I didn’t think it could be easily fixed, but the other two members were actually really happy with the set-up. I did tell them why I excused myself, but I decided not to be the only one to make trouble.’

According to the professors, a committee member has to get past their personal opinions. ‘Some fields are home to large cultural differences’, says professor of psychology Arie Dijkstra.

‘Last year I was on the assessment committee for a different department where psychology was used in the dissertation, and I felt the work was lacking in theoretical background. I felt like saying something, but the candidate did prove their academic skills, and that’s the main point in the end.’

Reputation

The professors make another point: quality control for doctoral research starts way before a dissertation is presented to the assessment committee. At some faculties, it’s become almost a rule that PhD candidates start publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals during their promotion track.

Smart people won’t put their name on a crappy dissertation

‘At our faculty, parts of the dissertation are often published before the dissertation itself is done’, says Van der Maarel. ‘This makes the job of the reading committee easier, because the articles have already been assessed by expert academics.’

Supervisors must also put their name on a dissertation, and that reflects on them. ‘My co-supervisor and I are responsible for the dissertation’s quality. So it’s not remotely in my interest to deliver a crappy dissertation to the committee’, says Dijkstra. ‘There’s pretty much a consensus about what’s important, and that’s what you’re working towards as a supervisor. It’s indicative of the quality you can inspire as a supervisor.’

The professors say the people on the reading committee have a vested interest in a dissertation’s quality, as well. ‘In my case, they’re usually people I could really use in my network. Often, they’re people I know personally’, says Jan-Willem Romeijn, professor of philosophy of science. ‘Smart people won’t put their name on a crappy dissertation. In the end, it’s their reputation at stake.’

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