Undergraduates 'poorly prepared for PhDs'

Lack of independent working blamed for difficulties making the leap from undergraduate to doctoral work

April 9, 2016
Track runner slow off the starting blocks
Source: Corbis
Playing catch-up: the heavily structured nature of undergraduate study does not prepare students for a PhD

Undergraduate courses are not properly equipping students to pursue doctorates, meaning that many undertaking PhDs are “less confident” than those in past cohorts, a conference has heard.

Alison Hodge, professor of engineering leadership at Aston University, made the warning as universities prepare for a new government loan scheme that could help more students to enter doctoral study.

Undergraduate programmes “have been quite heavily structured”, she told delegates at a conference in London on 7 April. Course leaders have tried to encourage “independence” among undergraduates, but students are nonetheless “less confident, less standalone when they embark on PhDs”, than in the past, she said.

Later during the conference, she added: “With the expansion in numbers there are more people going into PhDs than perhaps were formerly”. But not all of these have the independence, self-reliance and “slightly rebellious” streak needed to get through a doctorate, Professor Hodge warned.

More students believe – having done well at undergraduate level – that they can “sail through” a PhD using the same ways of working, she argued. The conference heard that a sizeable minority of PhD students still start a doctorate without studying a master’s first.

Asked whether she agreed with Professor Hodge, Clare Jones, a senior careers advisor for research staff and students at the University of Nottingham, said: “I do think there is a bigger difference [now] between being on an undergraduate programme and then moving through to a PhD”.

New PhD students “need to get hold of the fact very quickly that they are working differently”, she said.

A total of 12.8 per cent of research degree students in England will end up leaving without a qualification within seven years, according to projections by the Higher Education Council for England (Hefce) relating to those who started a doctorate in 2010-11. However, this is a very slight improvement on earlier cohorts.

In March's Budget, it was confirmed that from 2018-19 doctoral students will be able to take on a £25,000 loan to help cover the cost of a PhD.

Steven Hill, Hefce’s head of research policy, told the event, Next Steps for Postgraduate Research: Funding, Quality of Provision and the High-Skilled Workforce, organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum, that this sum would not cover the full living and fees cost of a PhD. Many students would therefore still need to find other sources of funding.

Dr Hill added that 56 per cent of postgraduate research students now enter with a master’s qualification, a figure that had been increasing in recent years.


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Reader's comments (10)

UK's 3-year undergraduate degree is a joke. How can students learn anything, by spending 8 months at most on campus for 3 years? Look at what your North American peers are doing. They are prepared for PhDs. Why? Because they work harder and spend longer years.
What a gross misunderstanding of the situation. The one-year difference only means American students study general knowledge for an addition year, not a year for them to prepare for research. *If* American doctoral candidates are indeed more prepared than British ones, it's not because of the undergraduate education they received (keep in mind many doctoral students reading in the UK actually were educated in the US), but that a doctorate takes a lot more time to finish in the States - in the UK, some may be sent to a Doctoral Training Centre whilst some may be doing an MPhil (or MSc by research) before officially starting (a guaranteed place) their doctorate. But most aren't. In the US, everyone was trained and taught more first before going into independent research. THAT is the difference between the two systems.
This is why people do a master's before going into a doctorate. If you skip a level of learning, then obviously you're not going to be well-equipped for it. It's like a primary schooler skipping secondary school to do an undergraduate degree - possible, but most would find it challenging.
Not sure where the 8 months at most over 3 years comes in- I work in the UK and students spend more than twice that on campus in 3 years. Did you mean 8 months per year JasonDaviod47?
The North American and UK systems are different. The PhD in North America generally requires a two-year, research-based MSc prior to admission; the latter undertaken after completion of a four-year BSc/BSc(Hons). Correspondingly, the MSc prepares one better to undertake research at the PhD better than coming directly out of an undergraduate degree (only truly exceptional students go into a PhD from the BSc(Hons) and usually this only occurs after a qualifying year in an MSc program). The comprehensive examinations, and in some cases the thesis proposal examinations (generally done within the first 12-18 months of admission into a PhD program), common in North American PhD programs, also help prepare students for research at the doctorate level.
I don't see how this is a problem. The point of an UG degree isn't to prepare students for a PhD - it's to prepare them for life and their profession. In fact, for the great majority of UG students who will not go on to do a PhD, spending time on getting better prepared for one would be rather useless. Moreover, surely we are not suffering from a lack of PhD students who graduate only to find that there aren't enough jobs for them in the academia, and they they are overqualified for most jobs outside of it. We really, really don't need more PhD students in this country.
Master's degree is like a bridge to Ph.D. that helps to prepare students for their research. With no experience outside the university, it's difficult for undergraduates to choose the research topic. It's necessary for them to study harder in order to compensate the level skipped.
Whilst I agree that undergraduate studies should prepare students for life long learning, since when has one of the graduate skills been 'ready to undertake a PhD? ' Registering for MPhil/PhD and then upgrading means that students work at a level appropriate to them, this in conjunction with an appropriate developmental support system maximises the chance of success.
I am an American who has done an EngD (similar to a PhD) in the UK. I went directly from my undergraduate degree of Physics (in the US) into a PhD program in Physics (in the US) in 2007 - at least in the sciences, you do not need a masters to go into a PhD. You can pick a Masters degree up along the way at some universities, through getting a publication or writing up some of your research. I left the PhD program after 2 years because A) I decided I'd rather do engineering and B) the American system takes way too long, up to 7 years, especially if you get a supervisor who likes to keep you around for cheap research labor! I did a 2 year masters then and that helped me massively in understanding how to do research and think independently, even though I also did research throughout my undergraduate degree as well. In comparing the two systems, based on my experience, I do not feel there is any American advantage here based on our undergraduate system - we have just as much hand holding/structure (if possibly not more) in our universities as you see in the UK. We also have the added problem of many of our high schools not adequately preparing students for university in the first place, so much of the first year for students is spent just getting them up to a reasonable standard. I think in general- the skills needed to successfully do a doctorate are independent and critical thinking and being able to be confident in exploring the unknown. It's not for everyone! I also don't think there is a market for more PhDs, where are these graduates going to go?

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