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Questionable practice undermines the doctoral process

- People are being encouraged to supervise doctoral work in fields where they have no academic competence, professor Rodrigo de Miguel warns.

- I fear the normalization of this malpractice will often lead to failure and low quality, and also undermine the academic standards upon which NTNU’s international credibility rests, professor de Miguel argues.
- I fear the normalization of this malpractice will often lead to failure and low quality, and also undermine the academic standards upon which NTNU’s international credibility rests, professor de Miguel argues.
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Two odd years ago, I wrote about the ongoing process of informal, yet very consequential self-accreditation occurring at NTNU’s Department of Teacher Education (ILU), whereby, under the auspices of the department’s leadership, academic personnel were declaring themselves qualified to lead master’s theses in topics where they had no expertise. This process was sparked by a new directive from the government that required all new elementary school teachers to have a master’s degree integrated within a highly regulated education. First, the fifth-year student chooses a topic suitable within these regulations; thereafter, the department must provide a matching supervisor for that topic. And finally, a formidable piece of academic of work, a master’s thesis, mind you, MUST result.

Despite some uncomfortable objections pointing at the academic unworthiness of the practice in question, in the ILUverse this anomaly quickly went from feeling strange to completely normal. People find different ways to live with it, from “I am so academically mature that I’m always qualified to read over and give good suggestions” to “this is a different kind of master’s degree” to “it really doesn’t matter” or “I simply do as I’m told.” In truth, we are so used to it by now, that nobody cares.

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But so came the second derivative, what I most feared: The same line of reasoning is now applied to the supervision of doctoral theses. Yes. People are being encouraged to supervise doctoral work in fields where they have no academic competence. Certainly not in the form of a doctoral degree or equivalent peer-reviewed production. Indeed, aspiring professors with some interest (and by ‘interest’ I do not mean ‘knowledge’ in any academic sense of the word) in a topic somewhat aligned with ILU’s ethos are encouraged and often funded to get a PhD-student to work on that topic. I fear the normalization of this malpractice will often lead to failure and low quality, and also undermine the academic standards upon which NTNU’s international credibility rests.

To be fair, this is neither new nor unique to ILU. Three years ago, PhD-student Vibeke N. Nyborg and Professor Line Joranger bravely warned us that aspiring professors were being awarded PhD-students by their department “without any regard to whether they have professional and methodological experience with, or research on, the topic that the PhD-student is employed to research,” and that many were “assigned main supervisory responsibility for PhD-students without sharing neither the student’s methodology nor the subject matter.”

This is problematic. PhD-students come to us, often from other parts of the world, with the fair and reasonable expectation of meeting a supervisor who is extremely experienced and competent in the field upon which they shall build their doctoral work. Yet they may be met by a supervisor with no peer-reviewed history in the field. A supervisor who may be an otherwise capable academic, but one who has yet to do the enormous amount of work (including the mistakes) needed to become a knowledgeable expert.

Not only is this clearly problematic from an academic perspective, but also on a human level. We must not forget that, by its very nature, doctoral work is no simple affair, and that PhD-students are especially vulnerable as they race against the calendar. A supervisor must be an experienced navigator worthy of the PhD-student’s trust in the uncertain times that will surely come. Otherwise, PhD-students are unlikely to finish, likely to quit, and conflicts are likely to occur.