Rationales for offering of PhD degree in private universities

Representational image of PhD journey

Increasingly more public universities in Bangladesh are awarding the doctorate or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in many disciplines. There is a growing demand from private universities to the University Grants Commission (UGC) for allowing them to offer PhD degree.

Since PhD is the highest degree offered by universities across all disciplines around the globe, it is essential to ensure the quality, consistency, and standard of every PhD thesis through consistent implementation of strict criteria for admission, supervision, ethical practice, innovation, and assessment of the thesis to make sure fundamental contribution in the field of research is significant.

It is the right time for the relevant regulatory institutions of higher education sector in Bangladesh to consider the matter seriously in a systematic and professional manner keeping in view internationally accepted standard, processes and practices.

As PhD studies are essential parts of research training scheme to produce future generation of researchers to lead innovation, novelty and creation of new knowledge and advancement of technological growth it is crucial for any nation to deal with the matter with highest priority to ensure the best quality. This short article is a brief proposal to achieving the above goals based on my working experience in various universities in Australia, North America, Europe, Middle East, and South-East Asia. The aim of this article is to provide the basic policy level ideas, procedures, and principles, and hence the implementation of them will require further working on operational details and regulatory instructions to be developed separately.

While interviewing candidates for university positions in Bangladesh, I was shocked and surprised to find out that applicants applying for academic positions in the university with PhD degrees have no journal publications at all. This is unheard of in the developing countries, or even our neighbouring countries, with whom universities in Bangladesh are competing for global ranking.

Award of PhD degree must be conditional on publishing at least three research articles, from the works included in the thesis, in peer-reviewed indexed journals with at least one in a Q1 journal. The bottom line should be, no journal publications, no PhD degree.

I believe, many private universities are doing much better in research than many public universities and vice versa. All universities should be treated equally if the quality of higher education and internationally accepted research standard are maintained.

Indeed, the approval of offering of PhD degree by public and private universities should be the regulated by UGC to ensure that any approved university has (1) experienced experts to provide adequate level of research supervision with excellent research track record, (2) appropriate resources including adequate scholarships, physical facilities and equipment necessary for the research, and (3) overall research culture and reputation of the university along with managing and funding of research projects.

What is a PhD degree?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest postgraduate degree offered by universities across the world. Unlike other university degrees PhD is not a course work-based degree, rather it is a fully dedicated research degree. This is a terminatory degree that normally takes between three to four years of full-time studies, or six to eight years of part-time studies to complete.

To obtain a doctorate degree students must produce significant and original research results on a specific topic of interest and present them in the form of a monograph, commonly known as thesis or dissertation. The main objective to undertake a doctorate degree is to acquire research knowledge, learn research methods and techniques, and gain firsthand experience and technical skills to become independent researcher and expert in the field of interest to engage in post completion further research.

Why PhD studies?

For academic and research careers a PhD degree is indispensable. A PhD program is the only university degree that offers highest level of exclusive research training opportunity. Award of this degree must ensure that the candidates have achieved extensive advanced knowledge, hands on training, first-hand experience in their field and received or deserve the recognition as a discipline or subject leader. One of the key objectives of offering this degree is to train future generations of researchers in a specific field of innovative science, technology and socio-economic issues. This is the main channel to develop fundamental and original research and continue to produce new researchers.

In addition to research training the PhD degree aims to solve contemporary real-life socio-economic and industry problems and enhances innovation and technological development. On completion of PhD degree, the researcher must utilise her/his research skills to produce new research outputs and supervise PhD thesis of new students. The use of the title PhD without engaging in research actively after completion of the degree defeats its purpose.

High quality PhD research, especially its outputs published in peer-reviewed indexed journals, could play a significant role in the improvement of global ranking of our universities. Research training of PhD graduates is likely to produce future researchers who should make on going contributions in the elevation of global research standing of Bangladesh.

Who should do PhD degree?

University teachers should encourage final year undergraduate and honours students to engage in research and discuss the benefits of careers in research including academia. This is the best place and time to recruit PhD students, especially those are bright and thoughtful with creative, analytical, and critical mind.

A suggested minimum CGPA of 3 out of 4 may be a pre-requisite for admission into a doctoral program. Language requirements may include high level of written and spoken skill in Bangla and English. For most of the science and technology students strong command in English language is essential. Any research journal or other publications will be a good evidence of language skill of the student.

The student must submit a research proposal, supported by a proposed supervisor, as part of her/his admission application.

The research proposal

Ideally any potential PhD student should have a problem in her/his mind that would be investigated for solution during the PhD studies. Once a research topic is decided, the student will have to search the literature, both online and printed, to identify all relevant publications on the topic. In the process, the potential student would focus on identifying any research gap in the literature. The research gap provides best clues to decide on the research question. Once the research question/s is/are formulated, the student may write a research proposal suggesting how to find an answer to the research questions including methodology and study design as well as a proposed tentative way of solution.

Any student seeking admission into a PhD program must select a principal supervisor from a university of her/his choice. The student must discuss the research problem/question with the proposed supervisor to finalise the research proposal. The principal supervisor may guide the student to form an appropriate supervisory team.

Supervisory team

The quality of PhD degree is highly dependent on the quality of the supervisors. Only best quality supervisors could produce high quality PhD graduates. Without high quality supervisors, no university should be allowed to offer PhD degree.

There should be a supervisory team to supervise every PhD student. The team should have a principal supervisor and at least one associate supervisor who are experts in the area of PhD research. In projects involving multidisciplinary problems the supervisory team should include experts from all relevant fields. All members of the supervisory team must be research active evidenced by continuing publications in peer reviewed reputed journal.

The principal supervisor must have a PhD or equivalent degree in the related field and must have at least three research articles published in Q1 (and even D1) journals during the last five years with an H-index of at least 6, and must have experience as an associate supervisor for at least one PhD student for one year who has completed the degree successfully. Any associate supervisor must be a research active academic with a PhD degree with at least 2 research articles published in Q1 journals in the past five years. Associate supervisors may also come from another university or relevant industry who are research active.

The supervisory team may be modified or changed at any time by the Department/University if requested by the student with acceptable reasons, especially if there are any genuine problems between the student and one or more members of the supervisory team.

Accreditation of supervisors by UGC

Only recognised experts in the field who are research active with excellent record of publications should qualify to be supervisors. Any appropriate accreditation authority of Bangladesh such as University Grants Commission should have a system of accreditation of supervisors for PhD students. The accreditation authority will use some specific criteria to decide whether any academic with a PhD degree is eligible to supervise PhD students. The criteria may include at least 5 journal articles published in international journals including no less than 3 in Q1 journals and have been maintaining a track record of high-quality research productivity and collaborative work with other scholars.

UGC should form a ‘College of Experts’ consisting of experienced specialists in different fields with good track record of supervision of PhD research who will be responsible to decide on the accreditation applications of potential supervisors.

Only pre-accredited qualified academics will be eligible to supervise PhD students as principal supervisors.

Research training and resources

The need of background knowledge and skills are different for every research/PhD student. A firm grip on the research design and research methodology related to the PhD studies is essential for every doctoral student.

The PhD students who work with data must learn the study design and methods to collect and analyse the data ensuring scientific compliance. Understanding of statistical concepts such as random sampling, confidence interval, test of hypotheses, P-value, regression analyses etc are often essential to understand research papers. Experience in using statistical packages and experience in interpreting statistical results are needed in much research involving quantitative analyses.

The student must consult the digital library experts of the university to come up with an efficient search strategy to ensure complete coverage of all available sources. At this stage, the student also should learn about the referencing style software such as EndNote for users of MS Word, BibTex for users of LaTeX and Mendeley Cite. It is also important for any PhD student to earn basis/advance computer skills including typesetting in MS Word or LaTeX, PowerPoint, Excel, and any other computing/statistical packages such as SPSS, Stata, SAS, R, Python etc if needed.

Confirmation of research proposal

To ensure that the student is working on the right direction and that the research proposal is technically sound, and the proposed methodology is appropriate to solve the research problem under investigation, the candidate must present a confirmation of proposal public seminar in the Department within one year of first enrolment.

The confirmation of proposal will be assessed by a research proposal review committee of experts consisting of three members who are experts in the field to be determined by the Head/Chairman of the Department in consultation with the principal supervisor.

The candidate can’t proceed with the research for the completion of the doctorate degree until the research proposal is approved by the University Research Committee upon recommendation of the research proposal review committee.

The research proposal review committee must ensure that the student has a clear road map, knows the methods and techniques, and has access to all equipment/lab facilities and resources necessary to complete the degree within the duration of the program.

Annual Progress Report

Annual Progress Report is an essential tool to monitor progress of the PhD student and provide feedback and put in place any support plan for smooth navigation of the candidate.

The student will have to submit annual progress report to the Dean of the Faculty through the Head of the Department. The report will be in a pre-formatted report form covering the work completed in the previous year and setting up the milestone for the next year. The Annual Progress Report must be jointly completed by the student and the principal supervisor.

The annual progress report will help the student and the supervisors to assess the status of the research work and meeting the previously set milestones including publications journal articles.

Thesis quality and presentation format

The findings of the PhD research works must be presented in a thesis. In some universities there are two ways of compiling PhD theses. The thesis for `PhD by publications’ essentially compiles all published research articles (usually at least three) during the term of PhD studies in the form of a monograph and submitted for assessment. Since the journal articles are published in peer reviewed journals, the likelihood of successful evaluation of this type of thesis is obviously very high.

The other type ‘PhD by thesis’ is the most common way of compiling the thesis in the form of a monograph. This kind of thesis usually consists of at least 5 chapters - introduction, method, analysis, discussions, conclusion etc. But the actual number of chapters will vary depending on the contents of the thesis and types and extend of findings of the PhD research.

Universities may recommend a format in the form of a template to make sure that all the theses follow a consistent structure. Every thesis must follow a specific referencing style approved by the university.

The copyright of the thesis will remain with its author, the PhD candidate.

The regulatory body shall recommend all universities a particular format to write the thesis in the form of a template to make sure that all the theses follow a consistent structure. This should include a title page, page of certificate, acknowledgement, copyright statement, abstract, table of contents, main body, references, footnotes, appendices, way of binding and colour, etc.

Thesis Assessment Committee

There should be a University PhD assessment committee in every university to ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements. The composition of the committee may vary from university to university, but normally include the Controller of Examinations and be chaired by the Vice-Chancellor and have at least 5 senior academics.

For the evaluation of the contents and quality of every PhD thesis, there should be a thesis evaluation panel of one internal and two external experts in the field be appointed by the Dean of the Faculty/School on the recommendation of the Head of the Department in consultation with the Supervisor of the student. Every member of the evaluation panel must have a PhD degree in the relevant field and hold a position not below the rank of an Associate Professor. At least one expert of the thesis evaluation panel must be from foreign universities, preferably from developed countries.

The PhD assessment committee and the three members on the thesis evaluation panel, must be appointed by the Controller of Examinations at least two months prior to the expected submission date of the thesis.

Thesis assessment process

The PhD candidate must serve an intention to submit notice in writings at the two months prior to the actual date of submission to the Controller of Examinations Office. This office will send the thesis to the internal and two external evaluation panel members for evaluation within one week of submission.

Prior to the submission of the thesis the candidate must present a public seminar on the fundamental contributions including research design, methodology and findings of the thesis.

The two external and one internal expert should independently evaluate the thesis based on the specific criteria (see next section) set by the university and submit the assessment report within two months of the receipt of the thesis.

The PhD assessment committee will make a final recommendation on the acceptance, major or minor revision, rejection or award of a master’s degree depending on the thesis evaluation reports of one internal and two external assessors and overall contribution and quality of the thesis.

In the event of a minor revision, the candidate will get two months and for a major revision s/he should submit the revised thesis addressing all queries and responding to all comments of the members of the evaluation panel within no more than six months.

The recommendation of the PhD assessment committee, after the successful defence of the candidate, would require the approval of by the University Academic Council before the final confirmation of the PhD degree.

Thesis evaluation criteria

To maintain a minimum standard and consistency in the award of PhD degree by various universities in Bangladesh, and comparable to our international competitors, it is essential to have some essential evaluation criteria for all PhD theses produced and submitted in the country. To

  1. have credible peer reviewed research publications in professionally recognised journals, preferably cited by reputed publication databases. This may include Scopus or ISI indexed journals. At least two articles must be published or accepted for publication in peer reviewed indexed journals from the thesis of which at least one must be in a Q1 journal and another one in a Q3 journal for the award of the PhD degree.

  2. present at least two research papers in peer reviewed conferences of which at least one in an international conference.

  3. present a public seminar as part of the final defence of the thesis in addition to the confirmation of proposal seminar within one year of first enrolment.

  4. successfully defend the thesis to the PhD assessment committee.

Other important points in the assessment of a PhD thesis are (1) organisation of the thesis in a reasonable and logical order, (2) research work is original and results are new and significant in the discipline (3) presentation and interpretation are of professional standard and acceptable, and (4) references are current, adequate and used appropriate referencing style.

In addition, the members of the evaluation panel would ensure the following aspects while evaluating the thesis: The candidate

(1) demonstrates the ability to conceptualise or clearly state the research problem, (2) demonstrate the ability to present the results of the research in a succinct and cogent format, (3) the thesis contain original contribution to knowledge by investigation or review or criticism, (4) contents of the thesis is sufficiently substantial and has broad ranging coverage of the field of research, (5) the thesis contains material suitable for publications in reputable professional peer reviewed outlets, (6) exhibits sufficient knowledge of the research topic and demonstrate expertise in the discipline at the level of high quality PhD thesis, (7) demonstrates skills and capacity for appropriate planning, design, analyses and interpretation of results, (8) shows mastery of techniques of analysis and/or synthesis and/or evaluation appropriate to the research topic, (9) represents a well- planned approach and format to present the outcomes of the research study, (10) appropriately orient the readers to the contents covered and the arguments made in the thesis, and (11) uses language correctly in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation and general appearance.


The article outlines some essential topics related to different aspects of offering, managing, assessing, and pursuing a PhD degree. In practice, many of the proposed ideas in this article would require further elaborations on operational and implemental aspects. The proposed steps and criteria will guide everyone to ensure high quality PhD graduates with genuine and fundamental contribution in the relevant research field. The quality of PhD degree must not be compromised so that it is not used exclusively for social prestige or as a title of honour seriously undermining the hard earn achievement and recognition come with it. The real success of a PhD graduates is in using the research training and skills to engage in further research and commit to research career to help produce more researchers and valuable research outputs. The dignity and sanctity of the PhD degree must be preserved under any conditions to ensure national standard and international reputation of Bangladesh universities.

***Professor Dr Shahjahan Khan is emeritus professor of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, and vice chancellor of the Asian University of Bangladesh.

The views expressed in this article is exclusively of the author’s and in no way reflect that of any of his affiliated institutions.