Postgrads crave more stimulation

December 14, 2007

Survey reveals very positive experience despite complaints about poor 'intellectual climate'. John Gill reports.

Postgraduate research students have given a ringing endorsement to their experience, but one in four is disappointed with the "intellectual climate" of their department.

These are among the findings of a survey that asked whether universities were living up to expectations in key areas.

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, carried out by the Higher Education Academy, is based on responses from 10,000 students from 58 UK universities.

They were asked for their views on eight areas of the postgraduate experience: supervision; intellectual climate; skills development; infrastructure; goals and standards; personal factors; completion on schedule; and QAA codes of practice.

Although 81 per cent were positive about their experience overall, stating that it had met with or exceeded their expectations, there were notable exceptions.

A fifth of those questioned said the supervision had failed to meet expectations; only half felt they had been integrated into their faculty or department; and less than half felt the financial support for research was appropriate.

Less than two thirds said they had understood the requirements for the thesis examination, and many found career and personal development planning to be poorly addressed, with just one third of students saying they were encouraged to think about their career options.

Despite these shortcomings, the majority of the study's findings were positive. Three quarters of respondents rated their supervision highly, and 82 per cent said their supervisor had the skills to support their research.

Skills development also won praise, with the development of research skills judged to be better and more important than transferable skills, and two thirds of those questioned said they had appropriate equipment, library and computing resources.

Chris Park, a senior associate of the HEA and one of the authors of the report, said he had been surprised by the spread of discontent about intellectual climate and attributed it to the feeling of isolation and marginalisation among some postgraduates.

He said: "They are not staff, they're not undergraduate students, they're in an in-between world, and most departments don't have an awful lot of graduate students, so they don't make big efforts to make them feel integrated."

Simon Felton, an executive member of the National Postgraduate Committee, agreed.

"Meeting other postgraduate students and the cross-fertilisation of ideas is important, and where that doesn't happen it increases the isolation of the students and can hinder their research," he said. "Even if it is meeting postgraduate students from other disciplines, the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another is very important."

Mr Felton said he was heartened by the proportion of students - 77.3 per cent - who said the supervision they received had met or had exceeded their expectations and called for departments that had scored highly to provide guidance to those with less impressive feedback.

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