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.
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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.
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
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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.”
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
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.