Lse Failed Dissertation

Oxford student killed himself hours after being told PhD thesis wasn't good enough

By Daily Mail Reporter
Updated: 17:45 GMT, 25 February 2009

An Oxford University student killed himself just hours after being told his PhD thesis needed to be improved, an inquest has heard.

A coroner was told how former Buddhist monk Juncnok Park hanged himself after what he saw was a colossal disappointment and an embarrassment.

The criticism was probably the first time the South Korean mature student had ever failed at anything in his life.

Oxford University student Juncnok Park, who attended Wolfson College, killed himself after being told his PhD thesis needed to be improved

The inquest heard how Mr Park, who had served ten years under holy orders in his native country, shunned television and other pastimes to devote himself to gaining a doctorate in Buddhism.

It was hours after his academic supervisor confirmed his fears - that examiners believed he was not yet ready to be awarded a doctorate from the university - that the 37-year-old student took his life.

Police were called to Wolfson College, Oxford, on Friday, July 18 last year after a cleaner found Mr Park's bedroom door blocked and noticed blood on the floor.

Police constable Henry Gillingham, of Thames Valley Police, who was joined by a paramedic, said: 'I immediately attempted to open it. I barged the door and a male's body fell on to a table pushed up against the door.'

PC Gillingham shouldered the door open, causing Mr Park's body to tumble on to his bed and then to the floor.

The paramedic confirmed that the scholar was dead.

Consultant pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt gave the cause of death as hanging, despite wounds inflicted on his wrists.

Mr Park, from Incheon, near Seoul, arrived at Oxford University in 2003 on a scholarship to read Oriental Studies, with a doctorate in Buddhism.

Lance Cousins, a fellow of Wolfson College and one of Mr Park's two supervisors, said the student had already completed his thesis and returned to Oxford from South Korea for an interview on it with two examiners.

He had been due to return to Korea the day after he died.

But Mr Park began to worry after receiving no feedback, and at lunch with Mr Cousins on July 17 - the day before his body was found - he asked what the outcome was.

'He was extremely well thought of,' said Mr Cousins, of Mr Park's academic standing.

'He was very committed to what he believed in. As a student he was very capable.' 

He added that he had not expected the student to be found wanting by the examiners.

Describing the scholar's attitude to the news, he told the inquest in Oxford: 'He was clearly not very happy and worried about it, but it was difficult for me without the final report.

'I was urging him to wait and see what he actually got.'

When asked by the coroner if he was concerned for his student, Mr Cousins said: 'No. I was a little worried about the longer term but it simply didn't occur to me that there might be a more immediate problem.' 

He added that Mr Park would have considered the news an embarrassment and something which could badly affect his prospects back home.

Sowon Park, a friend of the undergraduate and the last person to see him alive, described him as 'an exceptional student.'

She said: 'He had been a Buddhist priest for about ten years and had a very calm, detached manner about him.

'When I saw him he told me it (the interview) hadn't gone well and he told me he didn't know if he would get his degree or not.

'This must have been a real shock to him as he had never failed anything in his life.'

Oxfordshire Coroner Nicholas Gardiner said: 'It is very clear that Mr Park took the bad news, or what he perceived to be bad news, not very well.

'It would have been an embarrassment to him. He took his own life.'

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At undergraduate level, a lot of emphasis is put on the grades required to carry on to the next level, whether that be a job, a further course or a graduate programme.

As a result of the difficult job climate for graduates, more students are choosing to prolong their education and undertake postgraduate qualifications in the hope of becoming more employable – the latest HESA figures show 85% of postgraduates versus 73% of undergraduates were in employment (or working and studying) 6 months after graduation.

Many job roles have a minimum grade requirement of a 2.1 or a first in a degree. But does the same focus on grades apply to the 530,000 students who took a master's this year?

MA student Kaammini Chanrai is studying gender, development and globalisation at London School of Economics. She was advised by a PhD student that it didn't really matter about the overall grade of her master's.

Chanrai, who is searching for roles in human resources, says: "With most jobs I've been looking at a master's is a bonus, regardless of what you grade you get. I think that what matters more is where your master's is from and what subject it's in."

However, Jamie Pett, who is working as an economist for a humanitarian think tank in Zanzibar, Tanzania, was asked for his master's grades and individual module results when he applied for the role – although a top grade wasn't required.

"I presume it's because most people will have similar degrees, so they need to differentiate," he says. "I imagine it also depends on the reputation of the university and the experience you have."

In academia, it appears that perhaps your master's grade may matter more, at least temporarily. Biology PhD student John Lapage thinks that it can help separate out candidates for research and further study. But after that, it may depend more on the reputation of the course and any publications your research has been in.

"If you are working up an academic ladder I don't think your grade matters once you have a PhD," he says. "Nobody will really care anymore than they do about your GCSEs once you get into the real business of research."

Law students are required to pass their postgraduate qualifications to go on to further study, or to get a training contract.

Laveen Ladharam, a paralegal intern, says that while commendations do look good to employers, only a handful of places ask for them. They mainly look at your work experience and skills.

"Obviously they want you to do as well as possible," he says. "But the baseline requirement for the vast majority of law firms is a pass on both the graduate diploma in law and legal practice course."

If you are a trainee teacher, you'll be used to being monitored – so how important are your grades?

Primary PGCE student Rosie Chillingworth says that while the grade is important, there are other aspects to being a good teacher.

"If we are graded as 'outstanding' we will be put to the top of the pile for jobs," she says. "Your ability to reflect and develop is important too - schools don't want you to think you're perfect."

Warwick graduate Jonathan Higgs works in IT for EDF Trading, and says that his dissertation and skills were more important than his overall grade, which he hadn't even received when he applied for the job.

While his role didn't require his master's in information systems management and innovation, he feels it helped him stand out from other applicants in his interview.

"I put down my predicted merit on my CV, but my dissertation gave me the most to talk about, not my grade," he says.

So what do the employers think of postgraduate grades? It depends on what industry you want to work in. Rhys Griffiths was involved in hiring journalists for two years at Northcliffe Digital, and feels that postgraduate grades don't matter as much as experience and placements in the media industry.

"At no point do I recall asking about a candidates specific grades at any educational level," he says.

"We were much more interested in their skills and experience – people were unlikely to be hired if they could not demonstrate a grasp of the evolving landscape of digital journalism."

Deloitte, who employ around 12,000 people in the UK, said that they do not require a specific postgraduate grade for their programmes, as only a minority of them actually ask for a postgraduate qualification.

Rob Fryer, head of student recruitment at Deloitte, says: "We don't usually look for a master's or a postgraduate degree. There are areas of our business that do have a particular requisite, but we don't look for a grade.

"An undergraduate degree is usually a better measure of this, but doing a master's shows a good motivation to work, and candidates holding one tend to have more life skills."

Nicole Tiller, a member of the graduate recruitment team at John Lewis, says that they ask for a 2.2 or a 2.1 undergraduate degree in any subject (depending on the programme) and good GCSEs in maths and English.

"We don't ask for a master's degree as a requirement," she says.

"More important to us is a candidates work experience, non-academic achievements and their leadership potential."

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