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I am considering doing a PhD however I was surprised to find out that there are no set standards for a PhD in research.

For example, one study could test 500 patients, while another, tests only 10, yet both students are awarded their PhDs. Then there are retrospective studies, which are easier than starting a new study. Finally, there are some PhDs that are purely research and then there are some that are based on essay writing.

However, at the end of the day, the degree is the same, Doctorate of Philosophy, it does not mention anything special for those endless sleepless nights of analysing data and being able to pull off amazing statistics, as compared to a student of any other field.

So my question is, why bother going the tough route when it makes no difference at the end of the day, unless there are careers out there outside of academia, that specifically asks you, what type of PhD do you have?

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Do you know any particular school, department... that promises easy to get PHDs by plain "essay writing"? If yes, it would be interesting to know where is this "magical" place. –  Alexandros Apr 24 at 15:21
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There is no "easy route". Every PhD project is difficult in different ways. No reputable academic would supervise or graduate a PhD student on a project that was genuinely easy. Your doctorate is only ever as good as the skills you earned which back it up. –  Moriarty Apr 24 at 15:30
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The degree is just a piece of paper, it isn't very important by itself. –  Austin Henley Apr 24 at 15:34
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You don't get a Ph.D for effort, or sleepless nights spent analyzing data. You get a Ph.D for demonstrating the ability to do research and add something new to the repository of knowledge. –  Suresh Apr 24 at 15:45
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Can you give a uniform definition for the bachelor or masters degree, or even high school graduation in an international context for that matter? –  Marc Claesen Apr 24 at 16:55

5 Answers 5

Why are there no standards for awarding PhD degrees?

There are certainly standards for awarding PhD degrees. I think you mean to ask why are there no grades? It's a subtle distinction perhaps but an essential one.

If somone holds a PhD, what does that tell you? It tells you that the university awarding that PhD feels that that person is capable of pursuing independent research in the area of the thesis. Different universities may have different ideas on how to measure that, but typically a PhD will have to have published at least one peer-reviewed contribution (often more, sometimes many more).

However, at the end of the day, the degree is the same, Doctorate of Philosophy, it does not mention anything special for those endless sleepless nights of analysing data and being able to pull off amazing statistics, as compared to a student of any other field.

Your degree does not mention anything special (e.g., a grade). If you work harder than your peers, you may end up with the same degree on paper, but your head will contain lots of special information useful for lots of jobs, and your publication record will show lots of papers with lots of citations useful for lots of jobs

In other words, your grade is your demonstrable research output.

How else would you propose to grade or differentiate or categorise different PhDs? How could those grades be compared across different supervisors, different examination boards, different universities or different areas?

So my question is, why bother going the tough route when it makes no difference at the end of the day, unless there are careers out there outside of academia, that specifically asks you, what type of PhD do you have?

A PhD is a requirement of many jobs in academia, and some research positions in industry. Typically PhDs are competing with other PhDs for positions, hence holding a PhD in-and-of-itself, is just the entry point. After that, candidates will be judged on what they did during their PhD and afterwards. If you spent "endless sleepless nights of analysing data and [pulled] off amazing statistics", you'll have lots to talk to the hiring committee about.

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I think the question is about standards, not grades. There really is no consistent set list of things you need to do in order get a PhD across institutions and the requirements vary within institutions, departments, and probably even advisors as well. I agree with most of the rest of the answer. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Apr 24 at 15:44
    
The impression I got from the question implicitly suggested grades to me. It think the OP seems concerned that someone who does a lot less work can end up with the same degree on paper as someone who worked night and day and achieved a lot more. –  badroit Apr 24 at 15:49
    
It's clear this the OP is worried about the fact that different PhDs get the same piece of paper. That said, grades are only one way that PhD might be distinguished and it seems presumptuous to assume that this is the specific question she/he meant to ask –  Benjamin Mako Hill Apr 24 at 15:52
    
I edited to soften the emphasis on grades. I disagree that it is presumptuous to go from a statement like "it does not mention anything special for those endless sleepless nights of analysing data and being able to pull off amazing statistics, as compared to a student of any other field" ... to interpreting the question as being about comparative gradings of PhDs. Maybe we read it differently? (EDIT: ah okay, I think I see what you're saying; that the OP means that the standards should be so high so as to only allow people who work so hard to get a PhD in the first place?) –  badroit Apr 24 at 15:55
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Focusing on just a small part of this question, my answer is this: Because 'academia' is a wide and diverse place, with many different skill sets, questions and challenges.

You're also focusing too much on the "letters" in a PhD. You don't get a PhD - you get a PhD in something. You'd no more expect a PhD in Epidemiology and a PhD in Theoretical Physics to have done the same work than you would expect a BA in Math and a BA in German to have done the same coursework.

For example, one study could test 500 patients, while another, tests only 10, yet both students are awarded their PhDs. Then there are retrospective studies, which are easier than starting a new study.

Consider the following studies:

  • A study of the biomarkers associated with an extremely rare neurodegenerative illness that effects mostly children, doing full genome sequencing on the small number of prevalent cases of the disease (10), extensive personal histories and environmental sampling, etc. to identify potential drug targets.
  • A study of the risk factors, survival times, etc. for ventilator-associated pneumonias in a large group of community and academic hospitals, pulling all incident cases within the hospital for the past year (500), sorting through the medical records for each, and applying some cutting edge statistical techniques to deal with some of the messiness of the data - interval censoring, competing risks, and non-independence of patients.
  • A study of exactly 227 animals to understand the pharmacokinetics of a new tetravalent vaccine, specifically looking for markers of immune response and nephrotoxicity.
  • The development of a complex, agent-based model of the human gut, applied to both inflammatory disease, and the post-antibiotic exposure proliferation of certain bacterial species that impact the lining of the intestinal wall.

Which of these doesn't deserve a PhD based on their sample size, or whether or not they were a retrospective or prospective study (also, a largish 'Citatation Needed' around retrospective studies being easier - they're faster but not necessarily easier)? And these are just examples I can think of off the top of my head that fit in the somewhat wide field of "Biomedicine". Heaven forbid we throw in Mathematics or Physics or Religious Studies. One of them doesn't even have patients, and is entirely separate from the "Prospective/Retrospective" distinction.

"Why are there no standards for awarding PhD degrees?" (which is, incidentally, not true. There may be no universal standards, but universities often have them on the school or departmental level) has the same answer as "Why don't we publish everything in the same journal?"

Because academia is wide and diverse, and only describes a certain aspect of the pursuit of knowledge, not a specific set of methods, study populations, or even study questions.

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Review studies are only easier in the sense that they are cheaper, therefore easier to get them funded. Nice examples. –  Davidmh Apr 25 at 7:02

Whenever someone acts impressed by a PhD, I tell them tongue-in-cheek that a PhD is nothing more than a testament to that persons patience... they were willing to remain a graduate student long enough to earn the degree.

More accurately, though, a PhD is simply an indicator that someone is able to think. You're completely right; research topics will vary tremendously from field to field, and one person's degree and/or experience in grad school is likely completely different from the next's. However, both of them demonstrated their ability to reason through a problem, their willingness to put their nose to the grindstone and get the research done, and their ability to communicate their results to a third party (their thesis committee).

Regarding fields asking about your PhD, I joke with people that (the following is all true) my undergrad is in psyschology, my undergrad specialization pre-med, my graduate lab electrical engineering, my research topic neuroscience, my actual PhD degree biomedical engineering, my postdoc in biology, the stuff I actually enjoy statistics, and with all that my two industry jobs have been in banking and health insurance operations. How you sell yourself is a function of your salesmanship more than your actual credentials.

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+1 for how you sell yourself. "What am I?" depends on whose asking and why. –  Fomite Apr 24 at 18:17

Why bother going the tough route when it makes no difference at the end of the day?

It does make a difference. It's very unlikely that there will be a job where they ask you if you have a PhD, and when you say yes, tick that checkbox, move on and never mention it again.

A PhD is the single biggest unit of research experience for most young researchers (for older ones, usually their recent publications are much more relevant than their PhD). Therefore, if you apply to any job (academic or industry) where the PhD is a relevant qualification, you will be expected to discuss your thesis work at length. The employer will then judge the quality of your work, and based on that they will decide whether they will hire you over all the other PhDs. Of course, some employers are incompetent, and are influenced by the "brand" (whether you got your PhD from a famous place/advisor), but that's another matter.

So, no, if you slack off and get an "easy" PhD, it will not impress anyone who matters.

I was surprised to find out that there are no set standards for a PhD in research.

This is because such standards are unnecessary. Advisors are senior scientists who know well that if they let a student they supervise graduate with a garbage PhD, it will hurt their reputation when one day someone says "Wow, what a horrible thesis! Who supervised this?". So advisors will naturally try to make theses as good as possible.

unless there are careers out there outside of academia, that specifically asks you, what type of PhD do you have

Indeed, there are many careers where they would ask all sorts of details about your PhD (as I've also remarked above), both in the industry and academia, assuming it's relevant - Wall Street, for instance, has a habit of sometimes hiring people based on the fact that they have a PhD (in a quantitative field) alone without caring much about what the thesis is about.

Consider that usually, hiring a PhD is pretty expensive - even postdocs make about $50k annual, and in the industry it goes to $60k-120k. Why would anyone pay that much money for a PhD holder, and not even bother to ask the details of their PhD?

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"This is because such standards are unnecessary. Advisors..." Do you think that all advisors are equal? Garbage papers exist and are often written by professors who supervise bad PhD programs. –  Blaisorblade Apr 24 at 21:48
    
@Blaisorblade No, they aren't, but my point is this: There is no reason to add an incentive for stricter supervision in the form of standards, because a much larger incentive already exists in terms of reputation, and advisors are already trying quite hard to make sure theses are very good. Of course, some PIs care less about the effect of a bad thesis on their reputation, so it's not exactly equal, but even so, I think explicit standards would be largely redundant. –  Superbest Apr 24 at 22:00
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I agree on the conclusion, I just disagree on part of the argument. But I didn't explain myself: the problem is not that some supervisors are good researchers but don't supervise well enough. My point is that some supervisors are bad researchers themselves, so even their best effort is not sufficient for a "worthy" PhD. –  Blaisorblade Apr 24 at 22:10
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Supervisors supervise. But it's your Ph.D –  Suresh Apr 24 at 22:17
    
AFAICS, many talented PhD students don't learn how to do good research on their own. Heck, before starting my PhD I didn't even begin to know how I should pick my supervisor — I could easily be wasting my time on irrelevant problems, getting no citations and not even understanding why, by working with other supervisors (I have examples in mind). After all, most papers don't ever get cited. And I'm not sure you can be blamed for picking the wrong supervisor if you haven't been trained on doing it right. –  Blaisorblade Apr 25 at 2:27

Enjoy your studies! don't worry about paper certificates or PhD. The endless sleepless nights will be amazing, because you have spent them without sleeping, as you were more involved in it (research) than in your relaxed sleep.

If you are more concentrated towards what those certificates mean, that implies you are studying for marks not for joy that you get by studying. I hope you will not be the one who studies for marks, but indeed who studies to enjoy, to know the world better. What more do you want? Go ahead, enjoy your studies.

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