PhDs step into the mainstream

The first national survey of doctoral research students will help to put this burgeoning and increasingly vocal sector on the map, reports Suzanne Lynch
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The Independent Online

More than 80 per cent of PhD students are happy with their postgraduate research and the overwhelming majority – over 95 per cent – rate supervision as the single most important factor in their research experience.

These are the results of a major new survey to be published next month, the first national survey to look exclusively at the experience of postgraduate research students. Some would say such an investigation is long overdue.

The number of postgraduate students in the UK has been mushrooming in recent years, as more and more young people have felt the need to improve their preparation for the workplace.

According to the most recent figures available, 545,370 students were enrolled on postgraduate courses in the UK during the 2005-06 academic year. That represents a massive 23.3 per cent of the overall student population. But despite the fact that postgraduate students account for almost a quarter of all students in the UK, the postgraduate voice has tended to be sidelined. Postgraduate issues and concerns have often been seen as little more than add-ons to the undergraduate experience, rather than issues in and of themselves.

The main aim of the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, undertaken at universities across the UK earlier this year, is to improve postgraduates' experience of research, according to Professor Chris Park, chair of the steering group. Postgraduate students have warmly welcomed it.

So, are the Government and universities at last beginning to sit up and take note of postgrads? "Yes," says Park. "There have been real changes in postgraduate education in the UK in the past decade or so with universities moving towards a more accountable, strategic and student-centred approach. Traditionally in the UK, the 'secret garden' model – whereby supervisor and supervisee worked together, out of sight – was the norm. Now, the system is becoming much more transparent. Bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator are helping to ensure that quality and standards are maintained. This survey will also make sure that the student voice is heard."

One reason why universities may be beginning to address postgraduates' needs is the publication of PhD completion rates. A recent survey by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that at some universities 75 per cent of PhD students had not finished their doctorate after seven years. The survey also revealed a startling disparity in completion rates between different institutions. The naming and shaming of universities may be forcing higher education institutions to pay more attention to PhD students.

But postgrads themselves are becoming more vocal. "In recent years postgrads have become much more politicised" says Duncan Connors, president of the National Postgraduate Committee. "Postgraduate politics is thriving at grassroots level, with new postgrad associations springing up across the country."

One of the reasons is that the demographic of the postgraduate community has been changing. For many years, postgraduate research attracted a certain type – the staid academic who beavered away in the lab or library. Now the postgraduate community is more representative of society as a whole, with people from every walk of life and background, according to Connors. This has led to a greater vitality within the postgraduate community. "There is now a new type of postgraduate, those who are willing to get involved, speak out and campaign on issues that affect them," he says.

One postgraduate association that typifies this new generation of postgrad politicos is at the University of Surrey where the postgraduate population has soared in recent years and now comprises 45 per cent of the student population. Its postgraduate association was officially set up four years ago.

The main job is to ensure that postgraduates have proper political representation in the university, says Ciaran Fisher, president of Surrey postgraduate association. "In effect, this means that we 'police' the students union and ensure that postgrads' concerns are being adequately represented," he adds.

Surrey's postgrad association has representatives on the university senate, which allows them to air their views at the highest level. They highlight issues such as supervision and resources for PhD students, and they campaign on specific issues.

At the moment they are campaigning to change the rule on council tax because PhD students who have completed three years of research and are at the writing-up stage have to pay council tax even though their income has not changed. This puts an extra financial pressure on them at a stressful time.

The postgraduate association at Surrey keeps postgrad issues on the agenda though the student media. Each year, a postgraduate editor is appointed, whose job is to edit "PG Tips", a postgraduate supplement that appears weekly in the student newspaper. As with other postgrad unions, its other main responsibility is to lay on social and recreational facilities. At Surrey, postgrads have their own dedicated social centre, comprising a bar, canteen and common rooms. The students share this social space with academic staff, which gives research students the chance to network with their supervisors and other academics. The result is a vibrant and intellectually-enriching social scene.

The result is that postgrads in the UK are finally coming of age, according to Fisher. "There has been a real culture change within the postgraduate community in recent years," he says. "Postgrads are now much more aware of their rights and are much more likely to demand the support and supervision they are entitled to.

"As the postgraduate community increases, we are also seeing more postgrads getting involved in student politics. There is also a sense that universities and the government are beginning to take the views and concerns of postgrads on board."

The new postgraduate survey is part of this sea-change. The National Postgraduate Committee has long been campaigning for a postgraduate equivalent to the National Student Survey (a national survey which allows final year undergraduates to give feedback on their academic experience), so its introduction represents a real victory. There are concerns, however, about the effect the survey will have. As with the National Student Survey, institutions do not have to implement any of its recommendations.

Nonetheless, it is early days. Ultimately the hope is that the survey will put the postgraduate voice at the heart of postgraduate education in the UK.

Results of the survey

* 81 per cent of research students believe their overall experience has met with or exceeded their expectations

* 65 per cent of research students expect to complete their programme more or less on schedule

* 95.3 per cent believe that supervision was the most important factor influ-encing their experience and their ability to finish on time.

* 77.3 per cent felt that their experience of supervisory support and guidance had met with or exceeded their expectations, although 22.6 per cent said it had failed to meet their expectations.

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