How many PhDs have you ever read? Not many, would be my guess. How many theses do PhD students read, on average? Again (and despite spending a lot of time reviewing relevant work), normally very few. Why might this be?
The best part of a PhD is often the literature review, whilst (ironically) the least impressive part tends to be the (necessarily contrived) "contribution".
Awkwardly shoe-horned into the (strictly required, yet strangely undefined) thesis format leaves little scope for genuinely original research in the average PhD. In practice, the question-and-answer requirement ensures that most PhDs end up being written backwards, with the question tagged on at the end.
Neither Einstein nor Darwin contrived a research question. They did science.
One size fits all. Regardless of faculty, department or subject, the same (undefined) rules apply. It's a form of reinforcement learning, there is no clear path.
All PhDs are created equal. None are more equal than others. There is little incentive to do a good PhD. Financial implications ensure that departments would rather a weak PhD be submitted within four years than a good PhD submitted a month later.
Why does no-one ever fail? PhDs pass because your supervisor passes. They never fail because, like lawyers, they take on no risk. If your research is not good enough (or too good), you will cease to exist.
The commercially sponsored student (who often makes up part of a larger project in a large company) is slave labour. They don't need to think (the thesis will pass, that's part of the deal), they need to work. Cheaply.
A PhD is supposed to be an "apprenticeship" to research. Yet some departments recommend that two or three quality journal papers are submitted during the course of the thesis. This is inconsistent, and wrong (note that their supervisor's name is almost always on the paper).
Yet, strangely for an apprenticeship, there is no training. The student simply embarks upon the path of least negative feedback and perseveres.
As the Internet has given us all equal and easy access to the best of the world's academics, the notion of a supervisor in the traditional role is now irrelevant and all but historic. The official rules, however, remain unchanged, leaving the student in a constant state of uncertainty.
The fresh-faced student rides into academia on their technique-cart searching for their issue-horse. Supervisors are unable to spot the problem, because most academics are guilty of this sin. Plenty of academics build a successful career in academia with the dogmatic and biased belief that their technique is superior, regardless of the evidence put before them.
With the QAA evaluating the quality of teaching and the RAE assessing staff research, the poor PhD students get squeezed between the two.
PhDs smell. They must do, as long as the examiners judge that a thesis smells like a PhD, they pass it. They certainly can't read them. Why else would we see PhDs that are grounded in irrelevance and/or poor science? The hapless student is never taught why their p-values are misleading and irrelevant. The hapless student likely believes Popper's view of science is the only one. The hapless student believes (or even "proves") that their algorithm is superior, in the misguided belief that the no free lunch theorems don't apply to the real world, or to PhD students. Fundamental flaws running through a thesis like a cancer don't matter - so long as it smells like a PhD.
I have offered to teach (for free) both (Bayesian) statistics and the philosophy of science. What more can I do?
There are normally a couple of official milestones, which forces the student to write up their PhD in a cumulative fashion - this creates an inefficient path to completion and is an extraordinary waste of time.
Most aspects of a PhD are both historic and embraced the world over; and are therefore outdated, irrelevant and stuck in a global Nash equilibrium.
The academic world requires you to have a PhD, whilst the commercial world want you to. In the latter, marketing is everything and appearance is reality. Recruiters don't care what a PhD really means because their customers don't know.
There are two sorts of academic in the UK. Those at Oxbridge, and those who wish they were. Unlike the commercial sector, everyone outside (as well as inside) academia knows the score. There are sub-games being played out within the overall game. Some universities select, others recruit. This is why academics have job titles: they fool everyone and they cost nothing. Another sub game is played out in London with Imperial/LSE > UCL > King's > others. The US have a different system: $$$ > $$ > $.
Extraordinarily, unlike, say, a personnel department in the commercial world, The Registry within a university (surely the most petty place in the world?) do not appreciate that they exist solely to serve the core business (teaching and research). Submitting your PhD is considered an inconvenience - it means that they have to do something!
Despite the cyclical and predictable pattern of an academic year, at certain times of year, one is forced to fill in submission forms literally months in advance. This means that the PhD student is quite literally forced to gamble with their PhD, simply to ensure that The Registry can continue to exist in the only world it knows: linear and inefficient.
Cash-strapped UK universities are forced to attract more students, whilst political correctness encourages them to strive for equality. The net result is that some universities have introduced ‘soft’ subjects like media studies which attract relatively more women who tend to treat university as a “marriage market”.
Within universities, there is a perverse and unique reversal of the usual customer-vendor relationship. Rather than being treated like a client, the PhD student is considered a parasite. The PhD student pays to be discouraged from doing original research (it's too risky and takes too long), indeed, the PhD student effectively pays to suck academic cock.
How can it be that thousands of person-years are spent every year generating documents (remember the PhD is the book, nothing else matters) that remain unread. How many authors (fiction or non-fiction) would spend four years working on a text that is so pointless and so utterly tedious? Why are PhDs the most boring pieces of work you are ever likely to not read? Why are they so fucking dull?
The pinnacle of academic achievement, my friends, is essentially an exercise in fraud. You play the game and you stick to the rules, but you fool yourself.
This is not a rant which concludes with a solution - this is therapy. I'm doing a PhD.
E-mail from an anonymous reader:
The key to the PhD is having good supervision. It is the student's duty to have a research interest, and a willingness and ability to solve the day to day problems of the work. A student must bring to the table fresh ideas for contributions to the subject area based on their interpretation of the literature. It is the supervisor's duty to help mould those ideas to provide guidance in formulating the all important research question and later to provide guidance in the direction of the research. Sadly, all too many supervisors view students as already being professional researchers - post docs in essence - who should not require such help, interpreting requests for such as a sign of weakness and incompetence.
Students funded by a corporation have this most burdensome part of the research process decided for them. Indeed some stretch so far as to have even the methods and writing assisted by their over-zealous supervisors. This type of student learns little about scientific research, and when the time comes to fly solo often fails to show the necessary creativity to generate new ideas and produce original research.