Training schemes help improve PhD outcomes

Development programmes can make for speedier submission of theses, research suggests

September 19, 2013

Source: Alamy

Fast track: development schemes ensured a better pace of completion

More structured PhD programmes will not mean it will take longer to complete the qualification, a conference has heard.

Doctoral programmes have changed over the past decade to include a range of training and development elements. Some academics have feared that such measures, which aim to boost students’ employability, could affect academic aspects of their PhDs.

But research discussed at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2013 earlier this month suggests that such programmes do not hamper the outcome of the PhDs; in fact, they can improve it.

A study by a team at Newcastle University found that the likelihood of submitting a thesis within four years was greater when students had adhered to three elements of a development programme – creating a project plan nine months into the PhD, having more than one supervisor and taking part in training.

Data on 87 students within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences showed that when students completed these three elements, the probability of submitting within four years was 70 per cent.

If they had completed none of these, the probability fell to 15 per cent, said Robin Humphrey, director of postgraduate research training at Newcastle, speaking to Times Higher Education after the event.

Data also suggested that students attending voluntary training were more likely to complete their thesis with no or only minor corrections, said Richy Hetherington, research student development coordinator within Newcastle’s Faculty of Medical Sciences. “We’d say [the data show] a trend rather than a correlate, but they’re supported by examiner comments for those with major corrections, which were about things such as referencing and statistics that you might expect would improve with training.”

Nor did time spent on training affect academic publishing, said Dr Hetherington. Data from students finishing PhDs in 2011-12 showed that students who attended training sessions produced a similar number of papers to those who did not.

Despite the positive picture the data paint, Dr Hetherington said that he echoed concerns about the amount of time students were expected to spend on non-research activities.

Universities have to be “cautious” not to try to cram too much into the PhD period, he said. Dr Hetherington also stressed that changes to PhD programmes were never meant to suggest that the research degree was “broken”, just that students had been less able to use skills they had already acquired in a broader context.

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