Clock ticks on the PhD

Universities are under pressure to push their PhD students to finish quickly. But, asks Amy McLellan, is it fair to judge a department by its submission rate?

If time is money, the meter is running on PhD students. With the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) keen to see PhD students completing their research degrees as quickly as possible - four years seems to be the gold standard - an eight-year meander through the intricacies of 19th-century French literature could be seen as a blot on an institution's copy book.

If time is money, the meter is running on PhD students. With the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) keen to see PhD students completing their research degrees as quickly as possible - four years seems to be the gold standard - an eight-year meander through the intricacies of 19th-century French literature could be seen as a blot on an institution's copy book.

A recent Hefce report found that only 57 per cent of full-time students and 19 per cent of part-timers completed their PhD within five years, rising to 71 per cent and 34 per cent respectively after seven years. The council itself is unsure whether these figures are cause for congratulation or concern. "In part this depends on whether an uncompleted PhD programme is judged to be of value," says the Hefce study. "This will vary from individual to individual."

What is clear, however, is that starting a part-time PhD is, in the council's words, "a high-risk venture" with an estimated one in three students likely to submit a thesis within six years. The risks associated with part-time study are influenced by the fact that far fewer part-timers match the typical profile of those who complete their degrees in four years. If you have financial backing from a research council, charity or the British Academy, if you are an overseas student, under 25 or studying the natural sciences, you are far more likely to complete your PhD. Fifty eight per cent of part-time students are self-funded, 71 per cent are over 30 and the majority are domiciled in the UK, all of which stack the odds against them even before the difficulties of fitting their studies around their other commitments are taken into account.

Completion rates also vary widely from institution to institution, with some institutions typically performing nearly 50 per cent below the sector average. No institutions were named in the Hefce report but those with higher populations of research council-backed students were likely to be among the best performers. This is because the research councils have recently made it their business to see that their cash is well spent. Poorly-performing departments are subject to strict sanctions, including the withdrawal of funding from the entire institution. This zero-tolerance approach has had a big impact. "Our completion rates are over 80 per cent and have been for the last four years," says Iain Stewart, of the Economic and Social Research Council, which has seen the proportion of PhDs completed within four years jump from 29 per cent in 1981 to 84 per cent in 1999.

Yet students with research-council funding make up a small proportion of the PhD population. Almost 40 per cent of PhD students have no defined financial backing - and of these only 59 per cent will complete a PhD within seven years. The disparity between the on-target research-council students and the self-funded student - who behind the statistics may actually be making good progress despite financial headaches or outside pressures - is the subject of some debate. Institutions worry that completion-rate statistics don't account for the diversity of their PhD population and could lead to unwelcome probing from the Quality Assurance Agency. Many universities are, as a result, taking steps to inject some urgency into the PhD process.

Ralph Manley, Kingston University's director of graduate studies, says: "Institutions do feel a need to put pressure on students and provide incentives to get things done." Professor Malcolm McCrae, chairman of Warwick University's graduate school, also admits to some concern about how the system will be policed. "One problem is that it's not the student who will receive the punishment but the institution and that means penalising future students." For now, it seems Hefce has no intention of taking a hard line on completion rates. "It would be unhelpful for us to say that people should aspire to a completion rate of X per cent when our research shows rates vary greatly by subject, mode of study and how students are funded," says Rama Thirunamachandran of the council.

The monitoring of completion rates is a way to identify those institutions that fail to provide students with adequate support and supervision. "Support is still very patchy," says Jim Ewing, of the National Postgraduate Committee, whose members complain of isolation, poor supervision and a lack of support when things go wrong. If completion rates help fill in the holes, that can only be to the good.

A TALE OF TWO PHDs: THE QUALIFIER AND THE DROP-OUT

Susie Kilshaw completed a PhD in medical anthropology focusing on Gulf War Syndrome last year and is now doing a post-doctoral fellowship at University College London

"Because I'm Canadian, I had to work the first year until I qualified as a home student and could apply for funding. So for the first year of the PhD I was a part-time student and working full-time in the NHS. If I'd had to have carried on part-time because of a lack of funding, it would have been a real struggle. My field work involved travelling all around the UK and that would have been really difficult as a part-timer with a full-time job. As soon as I became full-time and got the funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, I completed the PhD within three years.

In terms of support, my supervisor was available and accessible. We met up about once a month. From the university's perspective if you're at doctoral level then you need to be quite independent and proactive in asking for what you need. You also need to keep the end in sight. While it's important to go off in tangents and explore different aspects, you have to make sure it doesn't become impossible to manage. It also helps to be in contact with people to whom your work matters - if there are people waiting for your findings it gives you a spur to get finished."

After four years, Alison Farrow has decided not to complete her PhD in English Literature

"We are all now expected to finish our PhDs within four years but my supervisor took seven years to complete his, and my head of department took six. Almost no one knows how to guide us through to the end within the set time frame. What is expected from us is disproportional to what is given to us. I only see my supervisor every few months. Although there are procedures in place to keep the academic community going, it is frustrating when your first port of call often disappears off the face of the earth for months. My field is also very competitive when it comes to scrambling for jobs, and my department doesn't offer any teaching training for PhD students unless you have experience. It's a vicious circle: the less experience you have, the less opportunity you have to find a decent teaching job, and the less motivation there is to go through with the studying. It is no surprise that most of us lose our enthusiasm and do something else."

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