Taboo but true: PhD students 'not up to scratch'

Supervisors struggle to get ill-equipped candidates through their research projects. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 20, 2008

A drive by universities to increase research student numbers is leaving academics with weak candidates who need intense supervision to complete their PhDs.

This "taboo" issue is just one of a number of topics due to be discussed in London this week, at a conference on the UK PhD that has been organised by, among others, the Higher Education Academy.

The event, "2020 Vision - The Changing UK Doctorate", will be the first time so many different groups have come together to take stock of how the typical UK PhD is evolving and how it needs to adapt, said Chris Park, the conference chair and director of Lancaster University's Graduate School.

Professor Park, currently on partial secondment to the HEA, said that although universities wanted to build up a "critical mass" of research students, some disciplines lacked a supply chain of "good-quality students with good potential".

"(The institution) wants more research students, but they are not as well equipped when they arrive. It is a bigger challenge for supervisors to help those students complete to the right quality and in the right time," Professor Park said.

He said the problem was an "unspoken tension" across the sector, and that discussions regularly took place at departmental level but rarely permeated the upper echelons of institutions.

He summarised the situation as a "battleground" between institutional missions and departments.

"We are expected to meet performance measures (on completion rates), but how easy is that on the shop floor? (You) can't get the quality of students, but (academics) are expected to deliver," he said.

Professor Park said the situation was more acute in some disciplines than in others, and cited mathematical subjects such as statistics and operational research as particularly problematic, where talented potential candidates leave higher education for well-paid jobs in the City.

Also likely to be at the top of the agenda is how the UK should comply with the European Union's Bologna Process, an initiative intended to standardise PhDs across Europe in terms of both length of study and entry requirements.

Implementing the "spirit" of Bologna would see the UK's PhDs lengthened from three years to four. Requirements would also be changed so that students would no longer be allowed to move straight from an undergraduate programme to a PhD, but would instead have to complete a masters programme first.

Professor Park said that although UK universities were "comfortable" with current arrangements, the UK ignored Bologna "at its peril" in an internationally competitive market. "(Looking from the outside), people question whether a UK PhD is as vigorous," he continued. "If the UK is seen to be having programmes that don't fit Bologna ... then the value of an award is diminished."

Other issues likely to be discussed by delegates include how PhD assessment could move beyond the thesis to take better account of the competencies of candidates, and growing expectations that supervisors should make doctoral students more employable.

"Universities expect supervisors to be leading that (employability) process ... (But) supervisors often feel very ill-equipped to do that. (Many) have never worked outside of the academy, so it is testing times for them," Professor Park said.


While academics question the abilities of their PhD students, doctoral candidates seem to be pleased with the quality of the supervision they receive, according to the results of the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) 2008.

The survey, prepared by the Higher Education Academy, is the postgraduate research students' equivalent of the National Student Survey. Out of more than 16,500 surveyed, nearly three quarters were satisfied with their supervision, which they rated as the single most important factor in the successful completion of their studies.

"They were particularly positive about their supervisors' skills and subject knowledge, and were least positive about the advice they received regarding their literature searches," the report said.

But students were less complimentary about the research environment of their departments, which they also rated as important to the successful completion of their studies. Research environment was the "lowest-scoring scale" in the PRES, with only half the PhD students satisfied with the opportunities on offer to them to become involved in the "broader research culture" of their departments.

Students are also beginning to see the benefits of managing their supervisors.

A conference to support PhD students - claimed to be the first to be run by students for students - took place at the University of Hull this week and included sessions on "managing your supervisor".

Derek Colquhoun, director of research at Hull's Institute for Learning, was on hand to impart tips on technique.

"A good supervisor will understand the need for a student to manage them," Professor Colquhoun explained. "There are so many horrific stories of poor supervision (and) supervisors are so busy."

Professor Colquhoun's tips for students seeking to take matters into their own hands included:

  • making appointments yourself rather than waiting for your supervisor to arrange a meeting
  • taking formal notes of meetings so you can hold your supervisor to account for the commitments they make
  • tapping into your supervisor's academic networks.

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