Stu­dents’ view of PhD’s value drops as course pro­gresses

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Post­grad­u­ate re­searchers be­come less con­vinced of the value of their stud­ies as they move through their de­gree, ac­cord­ing to a ma­jor sur­vey that sug­gests that many are also in­creas­ingly dis­sat­is­fied.

The Post­grad­u­ate Re­search Ex­pe­ri­ence Sur­vey, which at­tracted par­tic­i­pa­tion from 16,747 stu­dents from 63 uni­ver­si­ties in the UK, as well as one each from Turkey, New Zealand and Aus­tralia, found that 91 per cent of re­spon­dents in their first year felt that their de­gree was worth­while.

How­ever, this fig­ure fell to 85 per cent among sec­ond-year stu­dents and to 83 per cent among thirdyears. Among re­searchers in their fourth year or later, one in five felt that their re­search de­gree was not worth­while (80 per cent felt that it was).

Nearly three-quar­ters of re­spon­dents who did not think that their de­gree was worth­while (72 per cent) had con­sid­ered drop­ping out.

Sim­i­larly, the sur­vey found that 84 per cent of first-year stu­dents were sat­is­fied with their ex­pe­ri­ence but that this fell to 78 per cent by the third year and to 77 per cent af­ter that.

Dar­ren Van Laar, di­rec­tor of the Grad­u­ate School at the Uni­ver­sity of Portsmouth, said it was “well known that many doc­toral stu­dents start their stud­ies aspir­ing to change the world dur­ing the course of their PhD”, but that they of­ten suf­fered “sec­ond year blues” as they “buckle down to gather their data and un­der­take their anal­y­sis”.

“That th­ese blues con­tinue on to the fi­nal years of their stud­ies is some­what shock­ing, but per­haps un­der­stand­able as the pres­sures on the stu­dents mount to­wards their the­sis sub­mis­sion; to sub­mit on time, and of­ten fi­nan­cial pres­sures and pres­sures to pub­lish,” Dr Van Laar said.

Over­all, 80 per cent of re­spon­dents said that they were sat­is­fied with their post­grad­u­ate re­search ex­pe­ri­ence, down 2 per­cent­age points on the 2017 re­sults.

Sat­is­fac­tion ap­pears to have been dented by dis­ap­point­ment with the re­search cul­ture that stu­dents en­counter in their de­part­ment. While stu­dents re­port strong lev­els of sat­is­fac­tion with su­per­vi­sion and their de­vel­op­ment of re­search skills (both 86 per cent), and mod­er­ate sat­is­fac­tion with re­sources, pro­gres­sion and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment (all 79 per cent), only 63 per cent are happy with the re­search cul­ture.

Close ex­am­i­na­tion of th­ese re­sults re­vealed that re­spon­dents were par­tic­u­larly un­likely to an­swer that their work was stim­u­lated by the “re­search am­bi­ence” in their uni­ver­sity or that they had op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­volve­ment in the wider re­search com­mu­nity (both 59 per cent).

Dr Van Laar said that the drop in over­all sat­is­fac­tion was “very dis­ap­point­ing” but cau­tioned that it was not yet known whether it was “just a blip”.

“If it is an in­di­ca­tion of a wider na­tional trend, it may be as­so­ci­ated with the anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that many post­grad­u­ate re­search su­per­vi­sors find them­selves un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure, which they might then in­ad­ver­tently be pass­ing along to their stu­dents,” he said.

The sur­vey also re­veals that only six in 10 re­spon­dents felt that they had achieved an ad­e­quate work-life bal­ance.

Shrink­ing sat­is­fac­tion as stu­dents progress through their post­grad­u­ate de­grees, they be­come less con­vinced of the value of their stud­ies

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