Education: So how can PhD students get supervisors to do their job?

A document now circulating in universities attempts to set standards for postgraduate teaching. By Stephen Pritchard
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Research is at the core of the British university system. The research degree - and especially the PhD - is both the highest academic accolade, and the foundation block for a career as an academic. Yet, despite this strategic role, there is little or no national regulation of research degrees. Universities have been left to form their own standards for admissions, skills training and supervision.

The result, according to research students, is often patchy provision of facilities and support, and inconsistent arrangements for supervision. Within a university, or even a department, doctoral students experience wildly different relationships with their supervisors: the academic staff members who are responsible for guiding them in their research.

University departments with research students have come under pressure over the last three or four years, both from growing numbers of postgraduate students, and from tight cash limits on the equipment and facilities available for research.

The rapid increase in undergraduate numbers has also reduced the time supervisors can devote to their research students. Both academics and postgraduates concede that the worsening ratio of staff to students has made good supervision harder to achieve.

For some years, research students have been pressing for a more consistent approach through their representative body, the National Postgraduate Committee. The committee produced its own guidelines for supervision of research students in 1994, and a number of universities have used them to update their own regulations covering research degrees.

Calls for a more formal framework for PhDs were boosted last year, when a joint review of postgraduate education, chaired by Professor Martin Harris of Manchester University, called for a national code of practice covering research degrees. The Harris committee reasoned that a code would act as a minimum standard for quality.

A new publication from the Higher Education Quality Council comes close to setting such a standard. The document, Guidelines on the Quality Assurance of Research Degrees, is now being circulated among universities.

The document stops short of being a set of rules. The council prefers the term "consolidated guidance": this avoids any suggestion that it is telling independently minded academics how to do their jobs. But the fact that the document exists at all, and exists on a national scale, should have far-reaching consequences for the way research degrees are managed.

Student representatives point out that problems with PhDs, while far from endemic, are not unusual. And when problems do occur, the nature of postgraduate research means that the difficulties are often more serious than when they arise on an undergraduate course. The relationship between student and supervisor is highly personal, and problems in the relationship can be destructive. Students have been known to move to another university, or quit research altogether, because of problems with supervisors.

One student reported that his supervisor would skip meetings or turn up late, fail to read his reports, and withhold information that would help his project. "My supervisor has even withheld papers that he has written himself, not given me references that would be useful, and not told me of people in other departments who would have been able to assist me greatly," he claims. The student also says that his supervisor is very busy, so he receives, at best, cursory responses to his ideas.

Derek Walton, now a lecturer at a "new" university, also found his supervisor less than attentive. The supervisor was very keen on the project initially, but lost interest. Dr Walton (as he now is) and several other students received most of their supervision from a post-doctoral researcher in the department. "My supervisor was successful in bringing in grants, but then he lost interest in the project," Dr Walton explains. "If there had not been someone else to guide me, I would not have got my PhD."

The HEQC hopes its guidelines will help to prevent similar problems in the future. The document covers: recruiting students; applications procedures and fees; providing research equipment; and examination and assessment. It also calls on universities to improve training for research students, and to work to create an atmosphere which "promotes and secures high quality research". Most of all, it emphasises the importance of the student-supervisor relationship.

Students need to formalise the relationship with their supervisors early on in a research degree, the council points out. Many of the common difficulties with supervision happen not because either student or supervisor is unfit for the task, but because of a breakdown in communication, or because one party has unrealistic expectations of how the relationship should work. The council acknowledges that a wider range of students are taking research degrees, in a wider range of departments and institutions. It is no longer enough to base supervision on unwritten rules.

The council hopes that universities will adopt the guidelines as a basis for their own rules governing research degrees. The guidelines could also be used to train supervisors: universities are beginning to take account of the fact that being an effective supervisor is a skill that is learned. A good academic is not automatically a good supervisor.

According to Dr Chris Haslam, assistant director of the HEQC's quality assurance group and the document's author, most universities support the guidance. "Some have said that they don't need guidance, but they are the exception, not the rule," he maintains. In the future, Dr Haslam believes, the new single quality assurance agency may go beyond guidance, and produce a set of rules that all universities must follow.

John Gray, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, welcomes the guidelines. He believes they will help students, especially by providing standards they can use as a bench-mark for their own experiences. "It gives both students and supervisors an idea of what they should expect from the relationship," he says. "Without guidance, students may not know what they should expect their supervisors to do for them. The supervisor may not know, either"n