Sunday, 5 January 2014

Should we standardise the PhD recruitment process?

Competition for graduate jobs is tough with around 85 people competing for each position. When it comes to recruitment, graduate schemes typically include a written application, Psychometric tests and several interviews. 

Taken alone, it's easy to be critical. Applications are often read by software, Psychometric tests and Assessment Centres are closed source and interviews are a mixed bag at best. Nevertheless, they can be effective when combined. No method is perfect, so it makes sense to use more than one methodology when attempting to draw solid conclusions about an applicants suitability for a specific role.

But what about PhD recruitment and retention? 

It seems odd that a fresh faced graduate can be awarded funding to complete a PhD or even accepted onto a masters degree with very little pre-screening. A funded PhD is comparable to a graduate job because it pays roughly the same and involves a huge amount of work and dedication.

So how do British Universities decide who is awarded funding?

A short application form is usually sufficient. Structured interviews and Psychometric tests are an exception, not a rule. There is no standardisation across institutions. 

When it comes to a masters degree, is anyone who is willing to pay the required tuition fees ever refused entry provided they have a first degree in x and can pass a language test? 

I’m not suggesting that interviews and Psychometric tests always pick the right people, but it seems amazing that there is no procedure in place when it comes to the allocation of Research Council funding allocated for PhD studentships. This is particularly surprising given the increasing need to convince governments and taxpayers that science is worth funding.

It should come as no surprise that the failure to complete rate exceeds 40% at some institutions. 

In stark comparison, for the few who get through the first round of graduate recruitment in the real world, things are very different. Take British Telecom for example, where applicants complete at least two telephone interviews, numerous Psychometric tests and attend an Assessment centre.

Would a few structured interview questions help filter out those who are unlikely to ever finish a PhD? Psychology specific questions might include: 

1. 'Explain to me in layman’s terms what a t-test is’. A question that any final year psychology undergraduate should be able to answer. If they can't, why are they even considering a career in research?

2. 'If you had a million pounds to spend, what would you do research-wise?’ A creative thinking test. How much thought has a candidate given to resources and time in relation to their topic? 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I can't say for sure that I would have given brilliant answers to either of those questions myself. That said, I'm sure a few of us in psychology could put out our heads together and devise a short measure that might help predict progress three years on. This is exactly how the private sector refine and improve their own Psychometric tests. 

At present, we appear to have little understanding and are in no position to reduce the number of students who start, but fail to complete. Delays amongst Doctoral candidates in the Netherlands however, has been studied in some detail (van der Schoot, Yerkes, Mouw & Sonneveld 2013). But delays between students are only part of the problem.

Checks and balances at the end of each academic term are also inconsistent. Finally, universities have different cut-off periods for submission. Some impose a four year limit, i.e. get it submitted within four years or we can't award a PhD while others let the clock run forever.

Do British Universities have a moral obligation to ensure that students accepted onto any postgraduate programme have a good chance of completion, within an acceptable time frame, or does that responsibility lie with the applicant?

It would appear today that the the latter is preferred over the former.  


van de Schoot R, Yerkes MA, Mouw JM, Sonneveld H (2013) What Took Them So Long? Explaining PhD Delays among Doctoral Candidates. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68839. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068839