PhDs – What model works for developing countries?

Doctoral research is often dubbed the ‘primary function of universities’. It supplies important academic training with the main focus on creating a highly skilled and knowledgeable labour force with great competence in influencing the ideas of wider society.

The acquisition of a PhD has become the yardstick for measuring the quality of research output in countries as well as contributing new research-oriented ideas.

The models, practices and procedures for the awarding of a PhD degree have been extensively transformed since its introduction in Germany in 1810 at the University of Berlin. At that time, the awarding of a PhD meant a candidate had to attend and contribute at seminars, submit a self-written and acceptable dissertation or thesis characterised by originality and creativity, and pass a comprehensive oral examination.

Between the 1860s and 1930s PhD studies permeated North America, Canada, Australia and Britain as well as other parts of Europe. In North America, Yale was the first university to commission PhD studies and was later joined by other institutions, including Harvard and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In the United States, the requirements for the awarding of a PhD were extended to include undertaking a set of specialised courses, enrolling for three years, demonstrating a reading knowledge of at least one foreign language, passing a comprehensive examination, submitting a dissertation and passing an oral examination.

Australia and Britain adopted and modified the American system in accordance with their indigenous conditions. The methods of examination for PhDs were therefore part of the warp and weft of the traditions and cultures of these countries.

Two distinguished models emerged

By the close of the 1950s two highly distinguished models of examining PhD dissertations had emerged and were practised by, first, Britain, Australia and some Commonwealth nations and, second, universities in the US and Canada.

The quality of a PhD dissertation depended on the nature of supervision and the models used to examine it. In the American system, supervision was administered by a team of academics led by a principal supervisor. In the British system, only one supervisor undertakes the whole moderation process.

PhD candidate status is granted only after the student has passed a comprehensive examination under the American model, but under the European model PhD candidacy is granted upon the successful defence of a research proposal.

The American PhD system has many checks and balances to control for quality. For example, a PhD student must pass a set of coursework covering the duration of about 12 to 18 months, in addition to the comprehensive examination.

The comprehensive examination is a very important feature of the American system and comprises both written and oral elements. A student who fails the comprehensive examination is given the opportunity to take it again within a year. If the student fails the second time s/he is advised to withdraw from the programme.

To control for quality in the European system, a PhD student must successfully pass a proposal defence seminar. This system absolutely eliminates the need for coursework and favours a good proposal written and defended by the student in the presence of the proposal examination committee. A failure to defend the proposal successfully prevents the university from granting a PhD candidacy.

Different models of dissertation examination

However, in the examination of the dissertation the two models differ sharply.

Under the American model, a group of academicians – internal and external, including the principal supervisor – examine the student’s work. These academics form the dissertation examination committee, which examines the student both orally and on the basis of a written submission.

The supervisor is a very important figure in the whole process and his or her importance is based on the premise that s/he is an intellectual who is interested in producing another intellectual through the production of a dissertation by the student.

Therefore the supervisor is guided by intellectual ethical guidelines, which will ensure the authenticity and quality of the dissertation. However, the external examiner holds the veto power and fails the candidate if the dissertation is of low quality.

In the European model, examiners are appointed to evaluate the dissertation and the main supervisor is excluded. This model excludes the supervisor on the basis that his or her judgement may be clouded by self-interest even in the case of a low quality dissertation.

The examiners, who may be local or international, together with the dean or deputy dean, form the dissertation referees committee. The role of the committee is to make a summary report on the results of the various reports submitted by the different examiners.

Compared to the American model, the European model committee is relatively less powerful since it cannot decide on whether to pass or fail a candidate. The examiners make this decision.


Based on these distinctions, it is clear that the American model is more painstaking and has multi-stage confirmations to control for quality of the candidate and dissertation. However, it is expensive to adopt and implement.

Both models of PhD dissertation examination have their limitations and their strength is seen in the assumptions concerning the human nature of the supervisor(s) involved.

The European system works on the premise of the vested interest underpinning human nature, while the American system believes that advancement in knowledge inculcates ethical values into the supervisor(s), making him or her turn their back on any vested interest.

Replicating the American system in developing countries, where the knowledge industry and research ethics are still in their infant stages, is unattainable as the required standards are weak and not suitable for ensuring the integrity of the dissertation examination process.

It is therefore better to begin with the European system, but gradually implement the American system as the knowledge industry and research ethics approach the required standards.

Some institutions, such as the Indian institutes of management and Indian institutes of technology, have however switched to the American model and have produced good results and become world-class institutions.

* Devi D Tewari is a professor in the school of accounting, economics and finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.