I have been told that when steam trains were developed in England in the 19th century, one key consequence was that it lead to the introduction of a nation-wide standard time, which in turn allowed for better synchronized production pipelines between businesses in different parts of the country. I don’t know if this is true, but there are certainly plenty of examples in science, innovation and engineering, where having standards and conventions is important and has enabled better research and development. You need only to think of the kilogram, or binominal nomenclature or having standardized file formats in flow cytometry, or the MIAME requirements for microarray data. Considering how standards improve the quality of science in so many ways, I was very surprised when I discovered for that PhD degrees, which one might consider an essential cornerstone of the scientific career path, there is no standard requirement at all.
Sure, I’ve kind of known for a while that different universities have different criteria for awarding PhDs. But I only realized how extended the spectrum of variability is when I came across a survey by Namnezia a couple of months ago. Apparently, some universities strictly require one or more (first author) paper to be published before thesis submission/defense; other universities may have such requirements, but are not very stringent about it; yet others require students to finish within a given period regardless of publications; some universities require students to attend courses while others do not… Essentially, what this means, is that people who obtain PhDs at different universities can have very different achievements under their belt.
So does it matter?
Initially I thought: not really. After all, a PhD is supposed to be a milestone in your career, which reflects that you are able to work independently, and who cares what the administrative measure for this is? But then I started thinking about it in more detail: for many things in your career the day you obtain your PhD is the day the “scientific clock” starts ticking, because people consider this as the end of your training, when you reach scientific independence and maturity. This influences how people might read your CV and your achievements, but more pragmatically, for many (postdoc) fellowships the clock also starts ticking from the day you pass your PhD exam. Many fellowships (for example EMBO Long-Term Fellowships, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships or the Emmy Noether Programme) tie eligibility criteria to a limited time following the date you obtained your PhD degree.
Now lets assume you had a really successful PhD at a university where you have to complete your degree within three years, but with no paper requirements. You might easily end up spending another or two years years finalizing your data and getting your PhD work published after you’ve obtained your doctorate. It’s a path that’s not particularly outlandish, but you will be at a disadvantage when applying for fellowships. Not because you didn’t do good science or have extensive research experience, but because funding bodies have policies that are at odds with the reality of how PhDs are awarded. I have argued before that the criteria employed by funding agencies are flawed, and potential bosses-from-hell have a selective advantage. Similarly, in a system when eligibility standards don’t match the breadth of “PhD standards”, and young scientists can therefore be penalized for the educational choices their universities have made, there is a fair chance for administrative criteria to overrule actual scientific merit.
This is a shame, because it seems like a simple problem to fix: why not adjust fellowship eligibility criteria to the paper/time requirement of applicants home university? PhD degrees are not intrinsically equal, and I think this should be recognized in fellowship applications.