Old dogs and new tricks do not mix

August 19, 2005

Universities are misleading students in advertising three-year PhD studentships, when less than a quarter of full-time postgraduates are likely to qualify in that time, it was claimed at the conference, writes Olga Wojtas .

John Wakeford, an expert on higher education issues and director of the Missenden Centre, told delegates that the latest studies have indicated that only one in four students would get a PhD within three to four years.

He said that universities might argue that the majority of students submitted within four years - but added that submitting a thesis did not mean that a student had completed their studies.

Postgraduate delegates at the conference claimed that the main reason for the low completion rate among PhD students was difficulties with their academic supervisors, particularly a lack of communication, and lack of understanding of a student's and supervisor's respective roles.

Professor Wakeford said the complaints were generally not about new members of staff but about established academics who were prominent figures in their fields. Students were reluctant to do anything that might antagonise them in case this jeopardised their future careers.

"Someone like that would not come to anything called 'training'," he said. "You would need to call it a 'briefing' or 'updating'."

Most institutions said they issued guidelines for supervisors, Professor Wakeford added, but the seminars he ran for academics revealed that very few had read the guidelines before or after they became supervisors.

Many of the problems caused by lack of clarity and differing expectations could be avoided by both students and supervisors attending a two-week induction course that would establish all the ground rules for the doctorate.

He said: "If, at the end of the induction, it is clear that it is not going to work, you don't charge the student fees and you advise them where else they might go."

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