‘Minimum offer’ needed in ‘Wild West’ of doctoral study

PhD candidates face ‘inconsistencies and inequalities’ in the support provided by supervisors, says British Academy-funded study

May 22, 2023
Source: istock

UK universities should be required to advertise what teaching opportunities and career support will be available to doctoral students who hope to move into academia, says a study that has revealed huge differences in the assistance available to PhD candidates.

Based on interviews with PhD graduates who had recently submitted their thesis, researchers from Brunel University London and Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) identified “significant diversity” in the support from supervisors provided to doctoral candidates, with those from “less privileged backgrounds” most likely to miss out.

In one case, a PhD graduate explained that her requests for help from her supervisor had been routinely ignored, leaving her in tears, with contact limited to a single monthly meeting.

Another said they had been reluctant to ask their university about their likely contact with supervisors because they felt “lucky” to have been accepted on a funded PhD.

To combat the “inconsistencies and inequalities in the support provided to early career researchers”, the study calls for a “minimum offer” from universities in terms of research methods training, access to professional networking and support towards publication.

Kate Hoskins, a reader in education at Brunel, co-authored the British Academy-supported study with her Brunel colleague Ellen McHugh and with Marie-Pierre Moreau, a professor of education at ARU. She said universities should be much clearer about the level of support available during their doctorates.

“Our findings suggest universities are not providing clear information to PhD students on what support will be available to them,” said Dr Hoskins, who said some candidates likened the PhD supervision landscape to the “Wild West” given the lack of information on what might available to them.

“We have so much regulation and descriptive information when it comes to undergraduate degrees and master’s level courses, but there doesn’t seem to be that same guidance when it comes to PhDs,” she added.

While not every PhD student wanted to enter academia after graduation, that route was clearly one that many intended to pursue and should be supported to do so, continued Dr Hoskins, whose team interviewed 26 PhD graduates and six supervisors from a variety of UK universities for the study, “Precarious transitions? Doctoral students negotiating the shift to academic position”.

“To get an academic post, you need to have teaching experience or have some publications in the pipeline. Universities want to know that you can hit the ground running, so it’s important to have these things on your CV when the job market is tight,” noted Dr Hoskins, who said the study highlighted the “variance” of support on offer to students.

“Some supervisors did really well on this front – students spoke about the great support they received and the provision of teaching opportunities; but others didn’t get this,” she added.

Poor support was often linked to staff turnover, continued Dr Hoskins. “When a supervisor left, or got sick, someone would come in, often not from exactly the same area, and things would be difficult,” she said, calling the national picture “mixed”.

“Not everyone who starts a PhD will want to teach undergraduates or publish in scholarly journals. But our project focused on those candidates who had stated they wanted an academic career, and we found huge variance in what was available to them,” said Dr Hoskins. “That is why an institutional ‘minimum offer’ should be the way forward.”


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Reader's comments (2)

"In one case, a PhD graduate explained that her requests for help from her supervisor had been routinely ignored, leaving her in tears, with contact limited to a single monthly meeting." I have a lot of sympathy for the argument advanced in this report. Clarity of expectations and what is offered is very important. However, if you are in tears because you only have one monthly meeting with your supervisor, you may want to reconsider working towards a PhD. Part of that journey is becoming independent, and it is a lonely endeavour for most (outside the lab sciences). The supervisor cannot compensate for that. Get involved in social activities and other offerings outside the supervisor relationship. Many problems are down to mental health and a lack of self-efficacy, rather than a lack of supervisory academic support (I am not saying that some supervisors are really not cut out for the job and should not be anywhere near the task of mentoring students). The nature of PhD study in the UK – how it differs from taught programmes even at PG level – should be made very clear to prospective students. It is also very different from the US or some highly structured continental European programmes. Especially international candidates should be made aware of that. Even students who have excelled on taught programmes are not necessarily suitable for PhD study, especially in the UK. It requires a high level of not only aptitude and enthusiasm, but it also needs the above-mentioned self-efficacy and plainly maturity (more so than in the US with its more structured doctoral programmes, for example).
I can relate with this. I think from the outset, prospective students who want to study in the UK should be clearly informed of the peculiar nature of PhD study in the UK. This is particularly important for international students coming from varied academic backgrounds who will need much more extra support than home students.