Their numbers may be growing--today more than 14,000 doctorates are awarded each year, compared with 7500 in 1995--but for many doctoral students in the UK, the biggest problem is knowing what to expect. Many standards and provisions are still largely ad hoc.
Fortunately there are signs that things could be about to get better. The UK's Higher Education Funding Councils are working to improve the standards in research degree programmes so that standards for training, supervision arrangements, feedback mechanisms, and induction are brought in to help overcome the most serious problems faced by research students. The National Postgraduate Committee has been actively involved in improving standards. As the only organisation in the UK speaking specifically for postgraduates, and made up as it is of postgraduate student representatives from universities all around the country, it has had a vital part to play to ensure the research students' interests are met. Policy formed by NPC is implemented by an executive committee of 15 people (including one full-time officer) who are, mostly, postgraduate students.
Finding funding is rarely a problem for would-be natural science and engineering PhDs. Difficulties arise because much of the available support is time-limited, to just 3 years (see sidebar). The percentage of students who complete their theses within 36 months is extremely low. And although the majority manages to complete within 4 years, a very large number of students are faced with the strain of financial uncertainty at the same time as dealing with the stress of thesis writing and considering their next steps.
Whether the finger of blame is pointed at the student or the institution or both, it is clear that completing a PhD in 3 years is a challenge that requires students to receive maximum support, and minimum distraction from their research.
Starting a PhD can be very daunting, and many students find that little training is given to equip them to plan and carry out their research. "Training does tend to be quite ad hoc," says one current PhD student, "and although we get the occasional opportunity to be involved with a UK GRAD or another organised event, it doesn't tend to be well publicised or encouraged within our department."
UK GRAD has been running residential training courses for research students for 35 years, and many have found it of great benefit in helping them to recognise and develop skills such as time management and team working. However, many students make little effort to attend this course, and few supervisors encourage them to participate, even though many students are entitled to a place free of charge. Recently, one of the research councils (see sidebar), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, made it compulsory for all of the students it funds to attend this training programme. But valuable though this opportunity is, it is only offered to PhD students in the second or third year of their research. Students need help getting started on their research and understanding what is expected of them right from the beginning.
There is a great need for institutions to run induction programmes, as well as providing other learning support throughout the course of a PhD programme. Having this guidance can help students to plan and ensure that they are making suitable progress in order to complete their theses on time. There will be an opportunity in future to ensure that such early support is provided with the introduction of a requirement from this October that all Research Council-funded PhD students should undertake a total of 2 weeks of training per year, spread throughout the course of the year.
But for even the most switched-on student, circumstances beyond their control can throw a spanner in the works. A general lack of research funding is one such. "It is impossible to complete a PhD in 3 years, especially for candidates doing experimental work," highlights a student in the field of engineering. "There is lack of technical support for the setting up of experimental rig. Moreover, items sent into the workshop to be made can take months. My department wants students to complete in 3 years although students are not able to complete the work." Is a 3-year PhD viable, given the resources available for research?
Of course every student has a responsibility to plan their research and invest the necessary time in it. It is doubtful whether everyone who embarks on a PhD is really aware of the huge degree of motivation required. Nonetheless, institutions too need to take the responsibility to ensure that students have access to the resources they need.
An overall increase in the number of students in Higher Education without a commensurate increase in funding is placing another burden on PhD students which is making it difficult for them to get on with their research: An increasing teaching load is falling on them. Although teaching may well contribute to the students' professional development and provide helpful remuneration, there are a number of ad-hoc arrangements in place. In some cases there may be an appropriate limit placed on the amount of teaching, with contact hours clearly defined so research students can plan their time around their teaching hours. However, there are still instances where the level of work involved is unknown, and this is most often the case when teaching involves the supervision of undergraduate and MSc projects.
Top Priorities for the UK's Policymakers
Introduce a formal training programme, especially at the start of the doctoral programme, as a starting block for successful completion. Make sure both student and supervisor know where they stand by increasing awareness of formal standards. Create confidential, impartial, and accessible feedback mechanisms so that research students have no fear of raising complaints regarding their supervision. Introduce forums within which research students can socialise, exchange knowledge, and integrate with their peer group to avoid problems of isolation. Provide suitable progress monitoring which research students and supervisors can use effectively as a means of planning for successful completion and future career.
Introduce a formal training programme, especially at the start of the doctoral programme, as a starting block for successful completion.
Make sure both student and supervisor know where they stand by increasing awareness of formal standards.
Create confidential, impartial, and accessible feedback mechanisms so that research students have no fear of raising complaints regarding their supervision.
Introduce forums within which research students can socialise, exchange knowledge, and integrate with their peer group to avoid problems of isolation.
Provide suitable progress monitoring which research students and supervisors can use effectively as a means of planning for successful completion and future career.
A PhD supervisor may ask their PhD students to help supervise, or even be the principal supervisor for, the undergraduate and MSc projects which are his or her responsibility in order to free up his or her own time. In some cases such projects complement the PhD students' work, since the work may have some relevance to what they are doing. However, providing the training and oversight necessary can take up a great deal more time than it is worth. A final-year PhD student with this load highlights, "very few taught postgraduates have any practical ability, so they take up a great deal of my time to train them to carry out the work. I then have to juggle with completing my thesis, overseeing other students, and completing odd jobs that my supervisor demands of me."
As he points out, supervising MSc students is not an official part of a PhD student's role and can be very demanding, eating into PhDs' valuable research time and making it even more difficult to finish up within the 3 years of funded time. It is clear here that those undertaking projects with the help of research students should be made aware of how much help it is reasonable to expect and the degree of effort they need to make themselves.
At the root of these and many of the other problems which PhD students in the UK face is poor supervision. Supervisors should ensure that the resources needed to carry out a research project are readily available and that new students are properly introduced to the requirements of doctoral research, rather than being left to sink or swim.
All too often, however, the National Postgraduate Committee hears that students are not getting the supervision they need. The huge workload of many academics today means that other commitments can take precedence over paying proper attention to the needs of their research students. A student whose supervisor went away on sabbatical and returned only occasionally to the home institution found that, "my supervision sessions were happening on a very rare basis." In fact, if a supervisor goes part-time or leaves the institution before the student completes, the institution has a responsibility to ensure that adequate alternative supervision arrangements are put in place. But this is on paper only, and whether the responsibility is met in practise is a different matter.
Regular meetings with a supervisor are essential when undertaking a PhD, especially in the early stages. "One year after starting my PhD I had not had one formal meeting with my supervisor, only good general comments," describes another student. All was not well, however. "When I finally got a meeting with my supervisor to define the scope of my project in preparation for my transfer exam from a MPhil student to a PhD student, he 'suggested' I change my project 1 year after starting because he commented that my project was on the 'border' of the interest of his group," she continues.
And when problems such as these arise, many doctoral students find that the mediation mechanisms available to them are sometimes far from impartial. The most commonly adopted procedure is that the student with a grievance should take it to the head of department or director of research, but this can sometimes make the problem even worse. One student describes how the head of department effectively took sides with his supervisor: "[My supervisor] came into my office and accused me of trying to undermine his status among his colleagues by spreading malicious rumours about him. I had done no such thing. I had simply expressed my concern to [the head of department] about the way I was being treated in the department." This student was told "either co-operate with me or find another supervisor."
Many supervisors are reluctant to receive criticism, but experiences such as these show that in order to make real progress in raising the standards of research degree provision it will be necessary to engage everyone, from first-year students to heads of department and vice chancellors, in the process.
The input from individual PhD students is greatly appreciated, as well as information provided by Dr John Wakeford of The Missenden Centre for the Development of Higher Education.