Workhorses of the system

June 4, 1999

Postgraduates are overworked and underpaid. Few finish their PhD in the three years allotted. Alison Goddard asks why

There is no doubt that the workload of PhD students has increased considerably in recent years, as the demands of teaching grows and the requirement for training expands, according to Ewan Gillon, education policy researcher at the Association of University Teachers.

Yet most full-time PhD students are still expected to complete their studies in less than four years and, if funded, only receive support for three years' work.

His view reflects the conclusions of an interim report on the PhD experience, compiled by the AUT, college lecturers' union Natfhe, the National Union of Students and the National Postgraduate Committee.

The study looked at various aspects of the PhD experience, including supervision, teaching requirements, research training and motivation for doing a PhD.

The report forms the first half of a two-part study. It is based on interviews with 31 PhD students in six focus groups. The students came from a variety of subject backgrounds and old and new universities were represented. All students were in the third year of full-time study.

"One finding that shouts from the report is that the arrangements for supervision are often grossly inadequate," said Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department.

"The process of finding a supervisor is completely haphazard," he added.

"For example, students can often end up with a supervisor with whom they have difficulties getting on. Others will team up with someone they find easy to work with, only to find that after a few months, the supervisor's workload has increased and they no longer have the time to give

adequate support. In other cases, a supervisor will leave after getting a new job in a different


Mr Gillon added: "The growth in the number of PhD students has not been matched with comparable total increases in maintenance and fee funding. There is evidence to suggest that the quality of provision afforded to each student may have been compromised."

The growth has been meteoric: in 1992, a little more than 3,000 students started a PhD. This year there are more than 10,000.

Mr Wilson suggests that the level of academic support a student requires is often unmet.

"Some students can put in three or four years, and it is only as things begin to shape up that someone, usually not their supervisor, warns them that something is not quite right with their research," he said.

"There is one case that I know of which was a real horror story. A student spent six years doing a part-time PhD in management theory only to discover that his

supervisor had led him up the

garden path. The entire field had been superceded but the student had not realised and his supervisor had not told him. The student ended up taking legal advice to try and reclaim his fees. It was appalling."

Universities should draw up guidelines specifying the time and resources that a supervisor should provide, Mr Wilson believes. Given that institutions commonly expect a lecturer to have supervised a number of students before they are promoted, they should be more specific about what the role entails.

He said: "There needs to be far more clarity about the supporting role. We would very much welcome the drawing up of national guidelines that could be modified by individual universities."

Mark Grayling, director of research and publications at the NUS, said that supervisors could benefit from training.

"The finding on supervision made me begin to wonder how much training supervisors get and whether the Institute for Learning and Teaching should pick up on that," he said.

The study also found that the level of research training received by PhD students varied widely.

Sir Ron Dearing's committee recommended that PhDs should encompass more training in vocational and work orientated skills.

"Despite the importance accorded to training, it is clear that there is considerable diversity on the quality and formality of the training students receive," Mr Gillon said.

Furthermore, such training, where available, was not necessarily seen as valuable.

"One of the most common views expressed in the focus groups was that the training provided did not meet the training needs that were deemed relevant," he said.

"Despite the obvious need for good and focused training, it would seem to be the case that the training offered by institutions often falls way short of what is required."

PhD students are often required to teach undergraduates, putting them under further pressure, the study found.

"Although the employment of PhD students for teaching purposes is a longstanding tradition within universities, concerns have been raised about the quality of teaching that they deliver and the difficulties teaching presents to them in terms of time and workload," Mr Gillon said.

The teaching arrangements for PhD students are mostly made on an informal basis, which can mean that students are required to teach excessive hours.

Mr Gillon said: "A number of PhD students outlined teaching commitments that were onerous by any standards. These commitments often exceeded the commonly touted maximum threshold figure of six hours a week. One common reason for exceeding this threshold was the requirement to do significant amounts of preparation and marking."

In recent years, a number of graduate teaching assistantship schemes have evolved that require PhD students to teach as a condition of their bursary. Students on such schemes have the advantage of a more formal arrangement. Teaching is compulsory and payment forms part of the bursary.

For the majority of students, however, payment for teaching varies enormously.

"Despite students receiving an hourly rate for their work, the degree to which this was calculated to include marking and preparation differed," Mr Gillon said.

"The common discrepancy between the hours counted for the purpose of payment and those hours that were actually worked was often subject to negotiation between students and their employing department. This negotiation was generally casual and illustrates the operation of an informal economy with regards to part-time postgraduate employment."

Mr Wilson highlighted the case of a university that he believes relies too heavily on teaching by PhD students.

"I recently met a vice-chancellor, who shall remain nameless, who said that he employed vast quantities of PhD students and that this gave them financial support," he said.

"The vice-chancellor gave the impression that the university was being terribly altruistic, but all it means is that they are relying on PhD students to provide cheap labour, which means they don't have the same time to complete their PhDs."

Both teaching and research training have increased the workload of PhD students, making it even harder to complete theses on time, the study found.

"PhD students are under pressure to publish academic research papers and undertake teaching as well as conduct and complete an original piece of research," Mr Gillon said. "Fitting all the commitments into three years is often difficult."

Since PhD students are normally funded for three years only, many end up trying to complete their theses while holding down a full-time job or while claiming benefits.

Despite the fact that most PhD students do not complete in three years, the gap between the funding period and the research period remains.

If that were not enough, Mr Wilson believes that some students are misled about their employment prospects once they have got their PhDs.

"Sometimes PhD students are given the impression that a PhD is a passport to a job in academia," he said. "Much clearer guidance on employment prospects should be given at the


The unions are now conducting the second half of the study: a national survey to gather quantitative data on the PhD experience. The final report is due to be published later this year.

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