‘Signalling’ is the idea that the value of third level education is not just that it provides students with knowledge and skills that are useful in the workplace but that it acts as a sort of marker for certain innate qualities that the student had in the first place. (Signalling is discussed in more detail in this very interesting UK report: “Methodological Issues in Estimating the Value Added of Further Education, Higher Education and Skills: A Review of Relevant Literature”). Thus, it is not always the content of a degree that is important but the innate characteristics that are required to have earned that degree, and especially to have earned a particular grade in that degree. There is no doubt that many employers, especially those in ‘non-specific’ areas like management consulting, see signalling as a key part of their recruitment methodology; they recruit the person not the discipline. The signalling idea has important policy implications because there might well be more cost-effective ways of sending the correct signal to employers, a signal that matches the student’s attributes to the employer’s needs. (I should say that I am taking an entirely utilitarian view of education purely for the purpose of this argument!)
Signalling is even more important in PhD education. When PhDs were rare, the very fact of having a PhD sent out a pretty clear signal to the employer about the qualities of the person who had earned the doctorate. PhD graduates were characterised by being highly ‘academic’ and having an independent mind-set. But things are more complicated nowadays. PhD students now range from the outstanding to the average, from the highly enthusiastic and intellectually curious to the unmotivated, from the fiercely driven and ambitious to the ones who are just serving their time. The quality of PhD theses is similarly variable.
So, in that kind of environment, it makes sense to structure the PhD process. By ensuring that all PhD students acquire certain ‘transferable’ skills, we reduce the variability somewhat. Nowadays, PhD students, whose numbers are many, have very varied personal and academic attributes. Soon, however, employers will be more confident that candidates with PhDs have a basic set of skills that can be applied in the workplace no matter whether their PhD is in molecular biology or pure mathematics or romantic poetry. Structured PhDs are here to stay because they improve the signal being sent to employers.