He would much prefer to see theses’ introductory sections “written along the lines of a good review article, where the student does a critical appraisal of the state of the field”.
But what about going further and abolishing the thesis entirely, and instead allowing students to submit a bundle of papers?
Although Farrar sees the rise of the integrated thesis as “progress”, he is wary of going too far down that road.
He is concerned that the approach risks turning the Ph D into a “paper machine” that disadvantages candidates who are unlucky with their experiments and pushes supervisors to avoid any project that doesn’t obviously hold out the promise of a paper – “and there is already too much of that in science”.
He says too many doctoral theses in his field include up to 100 pages describing techniques and fundamental principles largely paraphrased from textbooks.
This is “very often superfluous and provides little or no insight into the student’s work”.
And according to Margaret Kiley, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, many higher education institutions Down Under offer something similar.
The UKCGE report attributes the integrated format’s rise to growing pressure on students, particularly in the sciences, to publish their findings prior to graduation – not least so that they can compete for postdoctoral positions in an increasingly international job market.
A spokeswoman for Imperial says that the institution “does not currently accept a series of papers for submission as a thesis, although we are continuing to explore the possibility of accepting alternative Ph D thesis formats”.
The “integrated format”, as the UKCGE calls it, is already common in many European countries, for which reason it is sometimes known as the “continental model”.