Jason Richwine Redux: Fatal Flaws to Fix in Doctoral Education

Jason Richwine was no accident.  He represents problems with doctoral education, even at Harvard.

In Three Magic Letters: Getting to PhD (2006) which was the largest survey of doctoral students ever conducted at the time of its publication, the authors note:

The dissertation-the culminating experience of a doctoral degree program- is the only research product for which there is stable and comprehensive documentation, and analysis of who completes the dissertation and the quality of it are missing from the public record. (Nettles & Millet, p. 105)

Just like juries sometimes get verdicts wrong, examining committees, even those made up of the esteemed professors who sat in Jason Richwine’s oral defense, get it wrong too.

No standard expectation of research productivity beyond the dissertation… has emerged in the disciplines or fields of study in the century and a half of doctoral education.  Consequently whatever doctoral students produce by way of research appears to be by happenstance or through unofficial or informal networks in academic departments rather because of formal requirements or stated expectations in the curriculum. (Nettles & Millet, p. 105).

When the examiners fail, the quality of doctoral education suffers.

Harvard failed Richwine, in qualifying him for a PhD.  Harvard, like all doctoral institutions,  followed the standard steps of doctoral programs, the same steps that contain the fatal flaws; no back-up process to catch mistakes by the examining committee and no clear standards for oral exams.  How is the examination of one document a representative sample? How is an exam without robust criteria for validity going to catch the work of a Jason Richwine, which one committee member considered careful?

Doctoral education needs change to catch mistakes by examining committees and insure that oral examiners follow robust criteria for assessment in the oral exam.


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