Doctoral College

Consultation Results on the idea of ‘Sustainable Theses’

Written by Prof Elizabeth Peel (APVC Doctoral College)

The Doctoral College Strategy talks about the 3 Vs – Vitality, Visibility and Value. In line with valuing everyone involved with our doctoral research students we ran a short consultative survey November to December 2019 to gauge opinion about potentially moving towards electronic thesis submission at the University. Thank you to everyone who took the time to share with us your thoughts on this topic. In this blog post I feedback on the online survey results.

Who took part? Doctoral researchers (42%, n=181), academic colleagues (54%, n=232) including those who had not yet supervised, those who’d successfully supervised over 10 PhD students and those in senior management and/or leadership roles and professional services colleagues (2%, n=9) were the majority of the 431 respondents who completed the ‘sustainable theses’ survey. Demographic information was not required but all Schools were represented, as were a range of ethnicities, ages, sexualities, (dis)abilities and genders.

What we found? Overall, 69% (n=297) of the sample were broadly in agreement with the University moving to electronic submission of theses as the norm, whilst 25% (n=110) were not in agreement and 6% (n=24) chose the mid-point between ‘completely’ agree and ‘not at all’ agree. Half of the doctoral researcher respondents (n=183) ‘completely’ agreed with electronic submission compared to 35% (n=237) of academic respondents ‘completely’ agreeing. The majority (78%) of the small number of professional services respondent were ‘completely’ in agreement.

Of the academics in the sample a large minority (35%, n=82) reported personal experience of examining a thesis provided in electronic copy. Feedback based on direct experience was largely positive. For example, “It makes passing on feedback much easier” (Ac), and “Easier to search through the thesis. Can still make comments and highlight electronically. Can print off sections/whole thesis if you need to” (Ac). There were a number of comments on the portability of an electronic thesis versus not liking “carrying a heavy thesis I can’t fit in my bag” (Ac).

There were reservations to reading theses on screen raised on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) grounds, namely ‘migraines’, ‘eye strain’ and ‘ageism’, but benefits were also highlighted for those with visual impairments who could use specialist software with electronic documents. Personal preference for hard copy (whether on logistical or disciplinary grounds) was evident in some comments from academic respondents.

There were numerous broadly positive comments from academics, including:

“As long as there is some flexibility for those who prefer to read full printed copies I think it is fine. I don’t think it benefits us to be overly inflexible when external examiners are giving up their time without a great deal of compensation” (Ac);

“It enables routine and consistent similarity checking, and it enables submission to take place remotely – which is surely necessary in this day and age” (Ac); and

“I think this should be implemented as soon as possible” (Ac).

Doctoral researcher respondents largely emphasized that “the positives of paperless outweigh the negatives” (DR). The convenience of electronic submission from both Loughborough campus, London campus, part-time, distance, and international doctoral researchers was evident in comments:

 “a cheaper, simpler, more environmentally friendly way of submitting a thesis. […] a beneficial alternative for those who cannot easily access campus due to a variety of reasons” (DR).

The main reason for retaining hard copy submission, which was raised across all respondent groups, was the potential to “devalue” (Ac) the “symbolic milestone” (DR) of thesis submission as a “rite of passage” (PS). This was typified by comments such as:

“Given that the current process of thesis submission is pretty underwhelming, I think moving to electronic would make it even worse (although I understand it for sustainability reasons). […] If electronic submissions are the way forward, I’d only be on board if something is organised to make submissions more official and festive. After all, a thesis is 3 years+ of hard work” (DR) and,

“There is something intrinsically satisfying about submitting a bound copy of 3-4 years’ worth of work and I think it would take something away from the PhD experience if online submission became the norm” (Ac).

What next? The submission of a doctoral thesis is a momentous achievement – an end as well as the start of a new beginning (subject to the viva voce examination). We are now working to understand how electronic thesis submission might work in practice, and also how the rite of passage of thesis submission can be given more value and visibility at the University. Watch this space!

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