‘Nurture trumps nature’ in PhD success

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 21 Sep 2020

Environment matters more than innate ability in shaping doctoral students’ fortunes, Australian research suggests.

Deakin University study has found that PhD candidates’ success – measured in publications, citations and other career-defining metrics – is linked far more to their research environments than their academic ability or any pre-doctoral training in laboratory techniques.

Scholarships also have a massive influence on students’ capacity to complete and publish, while poorly guided students are up to three times as likely to drop out as those overseen by experienced supervisors.

“The findings question the utility of assigning PhD scholarships solely on the basis of student academic merit, once minimum entry requirements are met,” the researchers argue in the journal Plos One.

“Strengthening research infrastructure and supervision teams may be more important considerations for maximising the contribution of PhD students to a university’s international standing.”

The study is thought to be the first to compare how the research environment and students’ academic ability influence the number of highly cited papers PhD students publish in high-impact journals.

This is an important consideration for institutions as well as the students themselves, given the enormous contribution doctoral students make to university research. A 2011 Quebec study credited PhD students with about one-third of the province’s publication output.

The Deakin research team tracked the fortunes of about 300 people who had applied for PhD scholarships from the university’s health faculty between 2010 and 2013. Almost 200 subsequently enrolled in doctoral studies, about half of them supported by scholarships.

The study gauged the students’ performance in their undergraduate degrees, the preparatory research training they had received and the number of papers they had produced before starting their doctoral studies. All three factors had little correlation with the publications amassed during their PhDs, or the citations, citations per publication and average impact factor these articles attracted.

The students’ “academic merit scores” had a modest influence on the quantity of their publications. But the most influential factor by far was whether the students had scholarships, followed by whether they were based in strategic research centres and had strong supervisory teams.

Lead author Daniel Belavy said PhD students whose research aligned with their universities’ strategic priority areas were likely to find themselves surrounded by powerful mentors. “If you’re supervised by someone who has a great deal of experience and is in a strategic research centre, that’s going to have a huge influence on your outcomes,” he said.

Dr Belavy, an exercise scientist who specialises in back pain, conceived the study while working as a research student coordinator and noting that students’ prior academic performance largely determined whether they were awarded PhD scholarships.

“I wanted to find out whether this was the best way to choose students, from a university management point of view,” he said. “As a researcher myself, I’m interested in how I can provide the best environment for students to flourish.”

The analysis was confined to students from a single Deakin faculty. Dr Belavy acknowledged this as a limitation of the study, but said research environment was likely to have similar influence on PhD students at other universities.

“It’s hard to do this sort of investigation across universities,” he said. “Even within our university, different faculties have different data. But given what we know from other research, it’s likely that the effect would persist elsewhere.”