How Are PhD Students Evaluated? (A Guide On Assessing The Performance Of Grad Students)

Assessing the performance


Before I started my PhD I knew very little about how PhD students were evaluated. Through a bit of research and my own experience I have found that evaluation for PhD students is less objective than evaluation of bachelors or masters level students. Depending on the program, the university, and the part of the world, the process of getting a PhD can be very different, but the end goal is usually the same, produce an original piece of research that makes a contribution to your field. But how is the originality or contribution of your PhD work evaluated?

During the first few years of PhD work in North America, PhD students are evaluated relatively objectively through specific written pieces of work produced at the end of the their coursework. This work includes papers, large projects, and in many cases comprehensive exams (comps). After successfully passing comps, PhD students move on to their own research. Some universities use milestones to mark a PhD student’s continued progress, but the evaluation process for PhD students becomes far more subjective and usually based on their intellectual contribution and research output which includes not only their dissertation research, but often writing and publishing articles and presenting conference papers.

Just as an FYI – this post was written by a member of the R3ciprocity Team, but not Dr. Maslach. We are actively trying to grow this project, which is good news for you! We are trying to create the best resource for graduate students, and people that are interested in research and academia by giving back as much as we possibly can. There are so many things about graduate school and academia life that no one talks about that are incredibly important, and we can all need the help. However, you can watch the YouTube video that this post is based on below. Make sure that you also subscribe to the YouTube channel by clicking here!

Graduate Coursework

Evaluation during the first year or couple of years of a PhD is similar to the evaluation you experienced in previous education. Students take courses based on their area of specialization, which usually requires them to read quite a lot, and then meet to discuss the readings with each other and their professor. (You can read this blog post about the size and style of PhD seminar courses.) The courses require an end product of some type in addition to your many hours of reading and talking. Generally that end product is written. I wrote a lot of papers, but they were much longer and more complex than the papers I had written previously, however, they were evaluated more or less the same.

At the end of the proscribed coursework, many programs in North America also require students to take their comprehensive exams. Comps are essentially pass/fail exams that test what you learned in your coursework. Depending on the program, you might only be required to write a comp for your major field, but some programs require comps for all coursework fields. There might also be an oral component. This is almost like a mini dissertation defense in which you explain your written answers and then get asked more questions to test your knowledge of the coursework. Once comps are completed students move on to their dissertation research.

Here are two excellent YouTube videos to help you do well on your comprehensive exams:


What Are Some PhD Milestones?

After the first few years, evaluation for a PhD student becomes increasingly subjective and less objective. Evaluation starts to depend more on your research and contribution, but some programs still have a few more objective tasks for you to complete called milestones. Milestones are often pass/fail, and vary widely by program. They are designed to be completed by a certain date within a program to keep students moving forward during the research and writing phase. For example, some disciplines such as History require students to submit a formal research proposal soon after their comprehensive exams. This research proposal is evaluated on objective features such as an appropriate and complete literature review and bibliography, but also more subjective matters like the proposed contribution to the field.

Some programs require students to give a colloquium paper (or, 2nd Year Paper), or present part of their ongoing research in an open forum to not only share their progress, but also to get feedback, not unlike giving a paper at a conference. Depending on the area of specialization, such as History or International Studies, some programs require students to take a language exam. This again is a more objective quantification of whether or not a student has the language skills to produce research in their field if it requires a language in addition to their native tongue. Generally, milestone evaluations are benchmarks to keep students moving along through the program to cut down on students taking overly long to complete their PhD.

What Is An Intellectual Contribution? (Quality vs. Quantity)

Outside of coursework, comps, and milestones, the evaluation of PhD students is much more subjective. Much of the evaluation is based on intellectual contribution, or what is your research contributing to your field. How is it new? How is it an improvement or clarification of existing knowledge? Why is it important to the field? How is your research helpful? Now some days you might sit there and think you have nothing new to contribute, all your thoughts have been expressed before. Don’t worry, WE all feel like that. But how is your intellectual contribution evaluated? Well it’s evaluated in a few ways: publications, conference papers, and your doctoral dissertation. I’ll talk a bit more about the dissertation below.

One of the more prominent ways intellectual contribution is evaluated not only for PhDs, but for academic generally, is through publications. (Here is a quick and dirty guide for writing a manuscript). This is not a straightforward task, and sometimes it is a question of quality vs. quantity. There is no perfect number of publications to shoot for, it all varies widely depending on career stage and discipline. What might be a high number of publications for one discipline is a low number for another. The quality of the publications can also vary pretty widely. You might know someone with a low number of publications, but the publications they do have are top quality, highly original pieces of research that are making a huge impact on their field. You could also know someone with scads of publications, but the quality isn’t quite as good and they are contributing something to their field, but not in a very impactful way. Numbers aren’t everything. How the research is used is important. Who is reading it? What is it being used for? What are the long reaching impacts? These types of things are also not always immediately evident. So a lot of evaluating PhDs on publications is subjective and based on the experts reading it.

Conference papers are another way intellectual contribution is evaluated. Are you applying to conferences? Are your abstracts accepted? How are your papers received at that conference? Conferences are a great place to meet and talk over your ideas with other people in your field and get their feedback. Our supervisors are phenomenal resources, but sometimes it is helpful to get the input and fresh perspective of someone with more distance from your individual project. Conferences also give you the opportunity to hear what other people are working on, and see if you can collaborate on similar interests.

You might want to watch these videos on attending conferences:

And, this very real account of attending a conference:

Doctoral Dissertation and Defense

The dissertation or thesis is probably the best known component of the PhD process and measure of your intellectual contribution. The research you may have published or presented most likely was part of your wider dissertation research or at least very closely related. Some programs allow students to complete a dissertation by publication (i.e. their published articles are their dissertation), but many require a large research project that results in a lengthy written work. The dissertation is evaluated by your committee and defended by you at a dissertation defense. The committee examines the dissertation for many components, but chief among them is the contribution of the research to your field.

You can watch a video of selecting a doctoral committee here:

The process of writing a dissertation is many blog posts in and of itself, so here I’ll focus on the end evaluation. Once your thesis goes to defense you have to do what it literally says: Defend your ideas, defend your contribution to your field. There are of course horror stories about bloodbath defenses, but what it should be is an exchange of ideas centered on your work. Make no mistake, you are there to stake your claim in your field, and you will be subjected to a few hours of questioning about your work, but this is one of the very few occasions where you will have a completely captive audience present purely to discuss your ideas and your contribution to the field. If the committee agrees that your dissertation makes a contribution, and you have successfully defended it, then you pass the final evaluation. Likely at this stage you will have to make some corrections to your original work, but that is the last hurdle of the PhD evaluation process and you have made it through.

What if you are confused about your university’s standards for evaluation?

Don’t worry, confusion is part of the process. Everyone in academia at some point has been confused about the their own education. That being said, many students suffer from what is usually called imposter syndrome meaning that they don’t feel they belong in the PhD program, and that they got their by some mistake. (you should watch this YouTube video about imposter syndrome) They don’t want to call attention to this mistake and so they don’t ask questions to clarify for fear of looking foolish in front of their cohort or their esteemed supervisor. Know that despite the confidence many of your peer’s project, many of them feel the same confusion you do. If you are feeling confused about how you are being evaluated ask for clarification, read your program’s handbook, talk to your supervisor, and talk to your cohort. It’s best to get familiar with the standards of your field, and the easiest way to do that is to talk to other people in your field.

If you still need more help with how PhD students are evaluated, you can check out more of these blog posts from the r3ciprocity project:

  1. How to get feedback on your writing during graduate school.
  2. How many hours do professors work?
  3. Questions to never ask a PhD student.
  4. Should you get a PhD to become a business executive?

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