Monday, 23 January 2017

The PhD problem

A few years ago while writing a book together, Professor Ian Davis and I swapped horror stories about examining doctoral theses. We had a rich experience of the negative side of this process and so we decided to turn it into an article which would highlight the problems. It was published in February 2014 in Times Higher Education (Alexander and Davis 2014). We thought the issue was very important indeed for universities and we expected considerable feedback, whether positive or negative. In fact we received almost none. I recall a colleague whom I met at a conference mentioning that he had read the article and agreed with it, but that was all the feedback I received.

Yet the issue is still very important and the problem we discussed seems to be getting worse.

One of the key words in academia is 'more' (the other one is 'money'). More students paying more fees, with more outcomes - but always positive, of course. Ian and I had examined a wide variety of PhD theses. Some were good, of course they were, and in those cases standards had not slipped. Others were atrocious and, moreover, the universal expectation was that they would pass.

Over the past two or three years I have examined, or tried to examine, more than a dozen PhD theses. I have my own ideas about what constitutes an acceptable thesis, but as this is not intended to me a publishable paper in the subject I will not go through them here. They are pretty straightforward and somewhat traditional. I am not averse to the new mode of creating a thesis out of a collection of published papers, but:-
  • they must have coherence and contribute to a uniform goal
  • they must be published in refereed journals, not merely be submitted or in press
  • they must be preceded by a substantial introduction which explains how they fit together and form a progression of ideas towards the unified goal of the thesis
  • even though they will be autonomous, self-contained works, the papers must be linked by a strong common thread, which represents a single process of the development of ideas.
If the last of these is not true, then, logically, anyone who publishes four to six papers in refereed journals should automatically be awarded a PhD degree, but that is in no one's interests. All in all, it is probably easier to write a monograph-style thesis than to produce a good collection of journal papers. Both should be judged by the same criteria.

Ian and I have both found ourselves in tense situations and we have both been vilified for our respective judgements of the acceptability of theses. There is increasingly an expectation that to submit a thesis is to have it passed for the award of the degree. In the past, quality control was such that this was usually the case. There were few incentives to promote a sub-standard thesis. Not any more.

The trouble with examining a PhD thesis is that one is examining the supervisor as much as the student. The only exception to this are the very rare cases in which the thesis is submitted for examination against the advice of the supervisor. After lax or incompetent supervision, the reaction of the supervisor may be as unpleasant as that of the student when judgement finally arrives. This is very stressful for all concerned. More than once, as examiner, I have been put in the position of being regarded as the culprit, merely because I pointed out the very evident deficiencies of the thesis. Yet the examiner has to be the guarantor of standards.

Disaster risk reduction is a field that has attracted more and more academics, but as we have done little to establish a consensus about what one needs to know to be expert in this field, there are those who lack the knowledge to be able to supervise research students in it. They therefore fail to see everything from the small-scale errors to the major failures of strategy in a student's work.

Broadly speaking, I have found that the most cocksure candidates are those whose work is least admirable. Self-deception all so easily replaces solid ability. In the worst instances, the student and supervisor may try for all they are worth to usurp the position of the examiner. They may well succeed, such are the elaborate mechanisms in universities to avoid the stain of failure. PhD students are fee-paying customers, and the customer is always right.

The main point of Ian's and my article in THE was that the PhD is the 'gold standard' of the academic world. If we let inferior theses pass, in a few years their authors will be the PhD supervisors of even worse candidates. And it seems to be happening.

The only ray of sunshine upon this gloomy picture is that under the current circumstances there is no inherent reason why a PhD thesis should not be good. It is still possible to produce a rigorous piece of work that genuinely advances the frontiers of knowledge. Most of the doctoral theses I have examined in recent years have not been good enough to receive my wholehearted endorsement. Indeed, I have more than once refused to proceed with the examination: let someone else take the strain. However, I did recently examine one that was a tour de force, masterly in its explanation, penetrating in its insight. Experiences like this keep one going.


Alexander, D. and I. Davis 2014. Fit to supervise? Times Higher Education 20 February 2014: 34-38.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why We Should Regard 2017 as the Centenary of Disaster Risk Reduction

On 6th December 1917 two ships collided in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One, the SS Mont-Blanc, bore a cargo of munitions. A fire ignited them and the resulting blast totally destroyed all structures in a radius of 800-metres. It killed 1,963 people and injured 9,000, amounting to 22 per cent of the population of Halifax. It was the largest man-made explosion of pre-nuclear times (Wikipedia, 2017).

Samuel Henry Prince (1886-1960) was a local Anglican priest who escaped injury in the blast and was thus able to assist the survivors. He had a strong sense of ministry, an academic bent (and an MA in psychology) and a maritime background (Scanlon 1988). In May 1919 he began a doctorate at Columbia University, which he completed and published in record time (Prince 1920). It deals with the first 30 months of the aftermath.

Several assessments of Prince's work have been published (Dynes and Quarantelli 1994, Scanlon 1988, 1997). One of these noted that "Systematic study of disaster was still three decades away" (Scanlon 1988, p. 216). However, it can be argued that Prince started the ball rolling. By a mixture of design and coincidence, his was the seminal study.

Was it really the defining moment?

Major disasters had been systematically investigated before Prince came on the scene. The Royal Society report on the 1883 Krakatoa eruption (Symons 1888) is one contender; the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes are another, as the Royal Academy of Naples carried out a thorough study of this disaster (Vivenzio 1788). An even stronger contender might be the December 1857 Basilicata earthquake in the Kingdom of Naples. The Irish engineer Robert Mallet wrote a remarkable interdisciplinary report on it after a month of arduous fieldwork (Mallet 1862) and this has since been treated as a milestone in the history of science. However, none of these studies led to the development of disaster science. To an extent, Mallet is one of the fathers of seismology. His observations on disaster were part scientific treatise, part ethnography and part travelogue, but they had no immediate follow-up.

Prince was fortunate in that others were ready to take the field forward. Although the priest himself carried out no other studies of disaster and wrote no further treatises on it, other than a 1958 volume in which he repeated much of what he had written in 1920, momentum did not lapse. A bluff, broad-shouldered mid-westerner, Harlan Barrows, who was Professor of Geography at Chicago University, took over the reins. In his 1923 presidential address to the Association of American Geographers he presented the field of human ecology (Barrows 1923). It ushered in the age of studies of how people and communities adapt to harsh environments and extreme events. Anthropologists such as Karl W Butzer (Butzer 2012) and Anthony Oliver-Smith (Oliver-Smith 1986) would take it forward, and so would Barrows's protégé, Gilbert Fowler White (White 1945, 1974, Hinshaw 2006).

The first generation of 'disasterologists' also included a remarkable man who managed to be both renegade and pillar of the establishment. Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin fled the Soviet Union in 1923. Before he left he founded the Sociology Department of St Petersburg University, and he did the same at Harvard University after he became a naturalised American. Sorokin was fascinated by the social properties of warfare, a field of study which gradually led him to write a more general treatise on disaster (Sorokin 1942). He appears to have had no legatees, although the founding in 1963 of the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Ohio (it moved to the University of Delaware in 1985) strongly promoted social studies of disaster and made the names of the sociologists Enrico L. ('Henry') Quarantelli and Russell R. Dynes revered by scholars and students worldwide. Moreover, the 'ethnographic' anthropology of Kai Erikson also left its mark (Erikson 1976).

Sadly, we cannot trace continuity or affinity in the psychological studies of disaster. In 1906 William James, the brother of Henry James, became a participant observer when he was lecturing at Stanford University and it fell apart in the San Francisco earthquake. Having survived - narrowly - he did not hesitate to put pen to paper (James 1911), but after that he did not follow up his reflections and neither did anyone else for a long a period of time.

Samuel Henry Prince forestalled Harlan Barrows by a few years but the establishment of social dynamics and human ecology (although not the conflation of these fields) was fortuitous, for it lent momentum to the study of disasters. Albeit with several different origins, a first generation of scholars had emerged. It led, perhaps erratically, to a second generation (White, Quarantelli, Dynes, etc.) and they took care systematically to nurture a third (e.g. Burton et al. 1993).

In 100 years the field has gone through several changes of name, or perhaps it has required time to acquire a coherent identity. Disaster risk reduction is a neologism, but it is intended to show that we embrace mitigation as well as response and recovery. 'Disaster science' is a good descriptor, but only provided we consider science to be a broad church that includes the social, economic, psychological and cultural aspects as well as the physical ones. We need Teilhard de Chardin's and Vernadsky's noösphere as well as the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere (Levit 2000).

What should we do?

There may be new challenges in disaster science, but there is still much unfinished business. For example, we have failed to define what a scholar needs to have read in order to become a 'disasterologist'. Perhaps we should start by doing this. The list is not difficult to compile. Many of the earlier works are available in digital format and can be downloaded freely. The next few months of 2017 would be a good time to reread Prince and the other early luminaries.

Friday 6th December 2017 might be a good date for a commemoration, looking back at disaster studies and forward to the future, as well as assessing the current state of the art.


Realistically, the beginnings of disaster science are diffuse enough that justifying the idea of a centenary is actually quite hard. However, there is something rather attractive about the idea that, like the Universe, it "all began with a big bang" (namely, the ship explosion). The second 'big bang' was undoubtedly 'nine-eleven', the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11th September 2001, in which civil defence underwent an abrupt return to favour as resources were poured into 'homeland security' (and thus out of natural hazards studies).

Disaster studies have grown at a fast and constantly accelerating pace. There are now more than 80 academic journals dedicated to aspects of risk, hazard and disaster, and more than 500 others that occasionally (or often) publish papers on these topics. Growth does not equal maturity. A centenary could be a good opportunity to force the pace regarding the latter, and to treat the occasion as a rather belated 'coming of age'.


Barrows, H.H. 1923. Geography as human ecology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13: 1-14.

Burton, I., Kates, R.W. and White, G.F. 1978. The Environment as Hazard. Oxford University Press, New York, 240 pp. (2nd edn 1993, Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.)

Butzer, K.W. 2012. Collapse, environment, and society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(10): 3632-3639.

Dynes, R.R. and E.L. Quarantelli 1994. The place of the explosion in the history of disaster research: the work of Samuel H. Prince. In A. Ruffman and C. Howell (eds) Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour. Nimbus Publishing Limited, Halifax, Nova Scotia: 55-68, 431-432.

Erikson, K.T. 1976. Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. Simon and Schuster, New York, 284 pp.

Hinshaw, R.E. 2006. Living with Nature's Extremes: the Life of Gilbert Fowler White. Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado, 339 pp.

James, W. 1911. On some mental effects of the earthquake. In Memories and Studies. Longman, Green, and Co., New York (reprinted in 2015 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).

Levit, G.S. 2000. The biosphere and the noösphere: theories of V. I. Vernadsky and P. Teilhard de Chardin. A Methodological Essay. International Archives on the History of Science/Archives Internationales D'Histoire des Sciences 50(144): 160-176.

Mallet, R. 1862. Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology. Chapman and Hall for the Royal Society, London, 2 vols.

Oliver-Smith, A. 1986. The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 280 pp.

Prince, S. 1920. Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law no. 94. Colombia University Press, New York, 151 pp.

Scanlon, T.J. 1988. Disaster’s little known pioneer: Canada’s Samuel Henry Prince. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 6: 213-232.

Scanlon, T.J. 1997. Rewriting a living legend: researching the 1917 Halifax explosion. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 15(1): 147-178.

Sorokin, P.A. 1942. Man and Society in Calamity: the Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 353 pp.

Symons, G.J. (ed.) 1888. The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, Harrison and Sons, London, 494 pp.

Vivenzio, G. 1788. Istoria de' tremuoti avvenuti nella Provincia della Calabria Ulteriore e nella città di Messina nell'anno 1783 (2nd edn). Reale Accademia delle Scienze e Belle Lettere, Stamperia Reale, Napoli 2 vols.

White, G.F. 1945. Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States. Research Paper no. 29. Department of Geography, University of Chicago, 225 pp.

White, G.F. (ed.) 1974. Natural Hazards: Local, National, Global. Oxford University Press, New York, 288 pp.

Wikipedia 2017. Halifax explosion., accessed 10 January 2017.

In memory of Professor T. Joseph Scanlon, 1933-2015.

Joe was Samuel Prince's biographer and a disasterologist of extraordinary talent, sagacity and charm.