The (National) Doctoral Dissertations Assessment in China: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis
Our study explores the perspectives of international doctoral graduates on (national) dissertation assessment in China.
In the absence of national standards or in the presence of impractical ones for assessing doctoral dissertations, these factors have inevitably led to what Granovsky et al. (1992, p. 375) called “up to standard rejected” and “below standard accepted.” Improving upon this debate, this study examines the lived experiences of seven doctoral graduates who have completed their doctoral degrees in a leading university in China.
An interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) method was used, which entails seven participant observations, seven semi-structured e-interviews, and 29 external reviews.
In the present study, we addressed the issue of doctoral dissertation assessment standards with a view to enhancing understanding of the quality of doctoral education. It emphasizes the strengths of this aspect in China and critically describes the weaknesses based on the experiences of doctoral graduates in China.
Among the major findings of this study are: (a) the external review of the dissertations presented in the literature review appears to be extremely unique in comparison to the countries discussed in the literature and the countries of the participants (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Yemen); (b) the national assessment strengthens higher education on a macro level, but is detrimental at the micro-level; and (c) while external reviews appear credible as a policy towards the standardization of doctoral dissertation assessment, this credibility evaporates when one considers the quality of reviews provided and the motivation of reviewers to pass or reject a dissertation, including the supervisor’s exclusion from this process.
Students seeking a doctoral degree or dissertation should become familiar with the A-Z detail of the requirements for the degree and thesis. In addition to meeting this overt requirement, their efforts must also be directed to meet the covert requirements, including the requirements of the external reviewers, their supervisors, and the country’s laws. There is a necessity for external reviewers to rethink their decisions and attempt to assess objectively, putting aside their personal views and preferences. There is a need to re-examine the flexibility granted to external reviewers for making decisions regarding doctoral degrees.
Future research should consider involving an increased number of parties in the conflict between doctoral students, supervisors, and external reviewers.
The Chinese government allocates substantial resources for doctoral studies for both international and local students. The spending of government funds on a doctoral student for four years or more, and then the degree is decided by an external reviewer, is uneconomical on the level of financial capital and human capital. Doctoral students are also human beings, and it does not seem logical that one should judge the quality of their efforts over the course of three or more years by reading the doctoral dissertation once. While they were pursuing their doctoral degrees, they kept their families apart, they lived alone, struggled to make it through hardships, and were easily destroyed.
In the future, more interviews may be conducted with respondents belonging to a variety of universities in China, including Chinese students. Additionally, supervisors and external reviewers (if available) should be included. Last but not least, including decision-makers in Chinese higher education can give future research more credibility.