From where I sit - Are PhD students being served?

October 13, 2011

German universities may be focused on improving their research, but doctoral students have highlighted serious flaws in their teaching.

The Deutsche Universitätszeitung (German University Newspaper), or the "duz", has published two articles, one recently and one a few years ago, on problems associated with doctoral supervision.

A study reported by the duz in 2004, revealed that although two-thirds of students felt they were generally well supervised and did not regret doing a doctorate, serious shortcomings were nonetheless conspicuous.

Educational researcher Kalle Hauss has said that students lack a comparative basis, meaning that the real level of satisfaction remains unknown.

One-third complained that their supervisor just "did not motivate them" and, particularly when things went wrong, felt there was not enough feedback. Furthermore, one in five thought that their professor was insufficiently familiar with the topic.

An alarming 14 per cent said that in reality they were not even supervised by their official professor but by one of the professor's assistants, often a more senior doctoral student. Most of the students wanted more structure in their thesis-writing phase.

Almost all felt that their financial situation was highly unsatisfactory. Seventy-five per cent were temporarily employed as "Assistenten" at universities, and their subsequent job prospects were unclear.

These assistants do all manner of work for a professor for about three years and then, at some point, are given a few months to write up their dissertation. After that, the job ends and the outside world may or may not beckon.

Seven years after that original article, the situation reported this year is that a lot of money has been poured into "structured doctoral programmes". A doctoral student panel with the name of ProFile has investigated the research and study conditions of these programmes.

The University of Münster has recently announced that it is introducing the "Structured PhD Programme", and there is a task force to assist in its implementation.

However, Mr Hauss has pointed out that while students now have more resources and services to draw on, problems still persist. A lack of clarity remains as to what standards are expected and acceptable, with respect to both professors and students. The recent spate of plagiarism scandals, involving high-profile politicians, has highlighted the worst-case scenarios all too shockingly.

Students in structured programmes do report a higher level of exchange between them and their (official) supervisor. Nonetheless, the intensity of supervision remains way behind expectations, and the difference between the new and old unstructured style is marginal.

Furthermore, not all students are happy with the qualifications, capabilities and motivation of their supervisors. The latter, of course, may argue likewise about the people they supervise.

Either way, the situation remains problematic. Too many doctoral students do not feel well served by their professors. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement in the supervision of dissertations.

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