Following up on the poll posted yesterday, I found the results really interesting. As I mentioned in the comments, I think it would have been even more interesting to see how the perception of "whose responsible for what" in the thesis/dissertation process is broken down based on career stage. I know that my perception of the process has changed over time and through seeing it from multiple angles.
In some ways it surprised me that more than a quarter of the 113 respondents (at the writing of this post) saw the PI contribution as either equal or greater than the students. That percentage was more than the people who felt the student is responsible for the result of their dissertation. It makes me wonder if most people who picked those categories were mostly picturing dissertations that did not go well as the result of PI / student conflict.
I also found intriguing the sentiment from the comments that there was some arbitrary level of "good" that all PhD students should be measured against, with those not meeting the amorphous criterion being removed from the pool by "The System" and its various lifeguards. The problem with this notion is that trainees in ANY field inhabit an enormous spectrum, from clearly not fit to pursue the career at hand to stellar. Combine that with the differences between the measure of "good" in a field and how we actually test for that early on, and the process of placing the predictive bar for who will be successful and who will not becomes increasingly difficult to define. But wait! It turns out that not everyone with a PhD goes on to follow the academic path through which they have come thus far. These must be the failures, because they couldn't hack it. Their interest were in tangential fields or career paths, and thus they should have been eliminated by The System.
Give me a second, I have to slip into these meat pants. Man, I've put on weight since last wearing them. Hold on. Okay, I think the button will hold. Now, where were we?
What a crock of shit.
Are there people who enter PhD programs that shouldn't be there? Absolutely. These people often drop out because they are miserable* or are asked to leave or take a MS degree instead. This happens all the time. But there are many more who, for various reasons, do not live up to the perceived arbitrary bar for Good that others have in their own heads. Is someone a failure if they get one paper from their PhD dissertation and go on to work very successfully in a non-academic career? I think a lot of people that hang on to the myopic view that the Ivory Tower is The Goal would say yes, and that the person should have gotten the hook earlier, etc., etc., call the whaaambulance.
But here is why I think the perception of the thesis process between trainees and those in a position to advise PhD students can be so different: If you've never had to work with someone to meet non-academic career goals, it may not cross your mind to think about what that process takes or what the end product might be. There are also trainees who follow a different career trajectory than what some consider traditional, and really bust out as postdocs rather than grad students.
I'm not saying that PhD students shouldn't publish and attend conferences, etc., because many non-academic careers value that production as well. But the emphasis for some other careers may not be on the same tick boxes that academics focus on (see one example here). So maybe rather than focusing on whether some students "deserve" a PhD, consider what some people's goals are in relation to your own and measure them by a different standard.
*Or maybe stick around to be that miserable person who everyone keeps telling to go do something else, but who ignores this and treads water, seemingly just to remain miserable. Everyone knew someone like this in grad school.