Students’ view of PhD’s value drops as course progresses

Satisfaction with postgraduate research declines significantly over course of programme, survey reveals

October 23, 2018
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Shrinking satisfaction: as students progress through their postgraduate degrees, they become less convinced of the value of their studies

Postgraduate researchers become less convinced of the value of their studies as they move through their degree, according to a major survey that suggests that many are also increasingly dissatisfied.

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, which attracted participation from 16,747 students from 63 universities in the UK, as well as one each from Turkey, New Zealand and Australia, found that 91 per cent of respondents in their first year felt that their degree was worthwhile.

However, this figure fell to 85 per cent among second-year students and to 83 per cent among third-years. Among researchers in their fourth year or later, one in five felt that their research degree was not worthwhile (80 per cent felt that it was).

Nearly three-quarters of respondents who did not think that their degree was worthwhile (72 per cent) had considered dropping out.

Similarly, the survey found that 84 per cent of first-year students were satisfied with their experience but that this fell to 78 per cent by the third year and to 77 per cent after that.

Darren Van Laar, director of the Graduate School at the University of Portsmouth, said it was “well known that many doctoral students start their studies aspiring to change the world during the course of their PhD”, but that they often suffered “second year blues” as they “buckle down to gather their data and undertake their analysis”.

“That these blues continue on to the final years of their studies is somewhat shocking, but perhaps understandable as the pressures on the students mount towards their thesis submission; to submit on time, and often financial pressures and pressures to publish,” Dr Van Laar said.

Overall, 80 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with their postgraduate research experience, down 2 percentage points on the 2017 results.

 

Satisfaction appears to have been dented by disappointment with the research culture that students encounter in their department. While students report strong levels of satisfaction with supervision and their development of research skills (both 86 per cent), and moderate satisfaction with resources, progression and professional development (all 79 per cent), only 63 per cent are happy with the research culture.

Close examination of these results revealed that respondents were particularly unlikely to answer that their work was stimulated by the “research ambience” in their university or that they had opportunities for involvement in the wider research community (both 59 per cent).

Dr Van Laar said that the drop in overall satisfaction was “very disappointing” but cautioned that it was not yet known whether it was “just a blip”.

“If it is an indication of a wider national trend, it may be associated with the anecdotal evidence that many postgraduate research supervisors find themselves under increasing pressure, which they might then inadvertently be passing along to their students,” he said.

The survey also reveals that only six in 10 respondents felt that they had achieved an adequate work-life balance.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I find that people generally start PhD with unrealistic expectations. The reality begins to dawn when they realise the need to put in extra work, couple with the fact that doing a PhD is a frustratingly long and lonely process.

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