‘Star’ academics’ PhD students no happier than peers

Supervisors’ supportiveness, not their academic ability, found to be key driver of satisfaction in survey

May 29, 2019
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Being supervised by a “star” academic does not make PhD students any happier, a study has found.

A survey of 409 doctoral candidates from 20 countries found that the supportiveness of supervisors was the key driver of satisfaction, rather than their scholarly capabilities.

The academic characteristics of PhD students’ departments – as well as the supportiveness of this wider environment – were also found to be more influential than individual supervisors’ academic qualities.

The survey was completed by students from across the sciences, social sciences and humanities in 63 universities in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

An article outlining the findings, published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, says that “supervisors are the largest contributors to PhD student satisfaction, but this is driven solely through their supportiveness and not academic qualities”.

As a result, attracting individual star academics would seem to be “less advantageous than equivalent efforts at cultivating more broadly collegial but capable faculties”.

Gerard Dericks, a senior lecturer in the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University and one of the authors of the paper, said the findings “highlight the importance of the overall department in PhD student satisfaction” and illustrate that “academic qualities of the overall department trump those of the supervisor in importance”.

PhD supervisors and their departments should “perhaps seek to work jointly, and perhaps more closely, than many currently do”, the paper says.

“Our results would seem consonant with recent trends towards PhD programmes that both increasingly incorporate supervisory teams rather than single supervisors, and provide more formal research training that is often department- rather than supervisor-led,” said Dr Dericks.

“An implication of this is the importance of promoting interaction between PhD students and researchers throughout their department.”

The research was co-authored by Edmund Thompson of the University of Bath, Margaret Roberts of the University of the West of England, and Florence Phua of the University of Reading.

Dr Dericks added: “PhD students have historically had about a 50 per cent dropout rate. Better understanding the determinants of PhD student satisfaction may help reduce student attrition and improve the overall experience of PhD students who do complete, which is often poor.”

nick.mayo@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: PhD students’ happiness not written in ‘stars’

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