The examples of 'gear-grinding' that spring to mind which have served to inspire this short post relate to an infrequent, but usually interesting - even pleasant, part of my job: acting as the external examiner for a PhD research thesis. Allow me to explain what I'm talking about before we get to the heart of the post. The systems set up to promote and maintain standards with regard to allowing someone to put 'Dr' in front of their name on the basis of a significant body of original research vary around the world. (We're not concerned with medical doctors here, who gain their professional titles from an extended undergraduate degree course and practice.) They have in common the need to establish whether someone's work, as enshrined within their written thesis and/or other published material, clears an accepted threshold of quality. One other fairly common element is the person and role of the 'external examiner'; this is someone relatively senior/experienced from another university/institute who possesses relevant expertise and is therefore able to offer a reasonably authoritative evaluation of the PhD student's submission. (A somewhat comparable system exists in the UK with regard to undergraduate degrees: I've done this job in the past as well.) A typical scenario, once the external examiner has been invited, accepted, appointed and taken the time to read the submission carefully, is that a date is agreed on which the PhD candidate will be 'grilled' for two or three hours by the external and another examiner from the student's own university.
Outside the UK one finds a few differences of detail. When I undertook this task in Sweden for instance, much of the 'quality control' work had already been accomplished prior to my arrival (- in part, as is more usual there, because much of the candidate's work had already been 'tested' within the peer review process required for publishing stand-alone pieces of research in appropriate international journals). The real novelty for me, as the external examiner, was that it was I who had to explain the research topic, and I had to do that to an audience of over 30 people - including friends and family of the candidate herself! Never mind, there was a great celebratory party afterwards ... and I was paid a small fee for my input. In fact, loosely speaking, it's these nominal fees that underpin the post. The problem, such as it is, comes from the fact that all sorts of bureaucracy pops up once money is involved - even modest tokens of thanks like the fees paid to an external examiner which, if calculated as a payment for the actual work/time involved, would be a rather long way below 'minimum wage' rates. In the Swedish case I needed to have a social security number. I'm not Swedish, so I don't have one. The solution? I had one invented for me by my hosts, based on my date of birth as I recall. That, one might say, was actually a moderately sane response to a bureaucratic formality. Other cases are arguably less so.
Take, for instance, my examination of a PhD thesis from a well-respected Australian university.
* I haven't watched the episode, as you might guess from my second sentence, but the phrase was quoted to me in conversation recently and I've found the clip on YouTube if you want to watch it; beware.