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."

News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40 - £50K first year: SThree: SThree Group an...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone