How overseas students can avoid the pitfalls of signing up for a PhD in the UK

Thousands of international graduates sign up each year for PhDs in the UK. But many find that their supervision is poor quality. Steve McCormack looks at the pitfalls - and how to avoid them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You don't have to be a marketing genius to realise that the UK's university landscape, containing as it does world-renowned institutions glittering with intellect and learning, presents an alluring prospect for a foreign graduate hoping to burnish their credentials with a PhD.

There is evidence of that allure in the rising numbers of students from abroad working towards doctorates here. The latest figures, for the academic year 2006-07, show nearly 42,000 non-British students doing PhDs, up almost 30 per cent on four years previously.

Less well known is the fact that many of these PhD students, when they arrive, discover that the universities make it difficult for them to make progress, leading to, in the worst cases, a failure to achieve the qualification that they have set their heart on.

"The education press is full of adverts saying: 'Come to Britain; it has the most wonderful doctoral system,'" says Professor John Wakeford, head of the Missenden Centre, which lays on seminars and advice sessions for senior academics and administrators in higher education. "But they never say anything about the difficulties and the problems facing PhD students."

Most of these, he argues, stem from two related factors, affecting home and foreign students alike, but which cause far more serious repercussions for those coming from abroad. The first is the variable quality and attentiveness of the academic supervisors appointed to guide and steer students through research and thesis-writing. And that second is the longer-than-expected time that it can take for a student to complete a PhD.

According to Wakeford, the figures show that only a third of PhD students are awarded their doctorates within a year of the period (usually three years) for which they receive funding.

"For foreign students, this can be a disaster," he says. "Many postgraduates from South America, for example, are released from a lecturer's job at their home university for three years on full pay to come to the UK to do a PhD. But if they don't go back immediately after that period with a PhD, then they have to pay back three years' salary."

This is one scenario featuring in the burgeoning caseload of Clive Robertson, a solicitor specialising in education law, who says his workload has now risen to about two new cases each week from PhD students who are in some way aggrieved at how they have been treated by their British university.

"I suppose 10 or 20 years ago academic structures were so powerful that it would have taken a strong person to complain," he says. "But nowadays, with more mature people doing PhDs, these people simply won't be treated badly, so they come forward to complain."

The most common factor behind PhDs that don't get completed within the expected timeframe, or which end in failure, is dissatisfaction felt by the student at the quality of supervision.

"Some supervision is fine, some is just absent and some is poor," says Robertson.

Poor supervision was at the heart of one case he successfully fought on behalf of a student from China at Bath University. The student, initially on a business management Masters course, was told by his supervisor that he'd failed in his attempt to be upgraded to a PhD programme.

The student maintained that he'd been given no guidance whatsoever on how to gain entry to the PhD route. And, when challenged by Robertson, the university could show no record at all of any meetings between the student and his supervisor during the crucial period. In effect, there was nothing to determine whether or how he had been supervised. Faced with this evidence, the university relented, and let him on to the PhD course, which he subsequently completed successfully.

Wakeford suggests that weak and inefficient supervisors are far from being exceptional cases. He runs courses at the Missenden Centre and at university sites, giving advice to university departments on how to supervise PhD students, and also to students themselves on how to overcome weaknesses in the supervision system.

"The majority of supervisors have never been given any training to do the job. It's just assumed that, if you have a doctorate yourself, you can supervise someone else getting one," he explains.

Since gaining a reputation for sympathising with overseas students in these situations, Wakeford has attracted a large postbag from those in difficulties, which has helped him build up a picture – he concedes it's anecdotal, not scientific– of the most common ways in which supervisors fall short of expectations.

The most frequent complaint from a student is that the supervisor doesn't make him or herself available for regular meetings. The frequency of these meetings is not laid down, says Wakeford, but something between once a fortnight and once every other month is standard. The important thing, though, is that the schedule is adhered to.

However he knows of numerous cases where meetings with supervisors have been almost non-existent, where a supervisor has simply disappeared on a year's sabbatical, or explained that, because of personal problems, they were not able to attend any meetings for a whole year.

And such situations can be exacerbated by the cultural difference that exists between student and supervisor.

"In some cultures telling your supervisor that you don't understand him or her is considered rude," says Wakeford. And for foreign students, the language factor often introduces more grey areas to the relationship, which can develop into disputes.

According to Oliver Hyams, a barrister, with more than a decade's experience representing aggrieved students, miscommunication due to language differences, is often at the heart of many of these cases.

"Overseas students are more vulnerable because there are often language difficulties, and, because overseas fees can be charged, there is an incentive on the university to take foreign students on, when they may not have the full capacity to do a PhD," he says.

However Hyams warns of the limits of legal action in such cases.

"You'll never be awarded a PhD by a court," he says. Most of his court successes have been in winning compensation from universities for wasting students' time by poor supervision, after students had gone to another university and gained a PhD.

With this in mind, Wakeford offers some ground rules to students setting out on PhD courses. The first is to read carefully what the university says are the duties of the supervisor, and then to complain at an early stage if these commitments are not being met.

He strongly encourages students to keep records of all meetings with supervisors.

"When you have a meeting, work from an agenda, keep a record, and then, after the meeting, email it back to the supervisor."

He also urges universities to ensure they fulfil all undertakings given to students at the outset of the PhD period, and to be alive to students' needs.

"Listening and asking questions back is a basic teaching technique," he argues.

Listening out for evidence of PhD student dissatisfaction would seem to make sense for any university, given the degree to which overseas student fees bolster university finances, particularly in an economic climate as fragile as it is right now.

'Complain and your career's over, they told me'

These are the experiences of some PhD students, as told to Professor John Wakeford at the Missenden Centre. Names have been changed.

Fang Liang: "My supervisor didn't have time to see me at all in the first year, and never read any of my work. When I thought about complaining, I found out that the department's administrator was my supervisor's wife!"

Emily Robson: "I got so fed up with my treatment by both my supervisors that I told them I was going to complain about them, so which one of them replied to me: 'You can make a complaint if you like, but it'll be the end of your career in science.' So I realised it was no use making a complaint, and after I got my PhD, I left the scientific area that they were in."

Rafael Fernandez: "One year after starting my PhD I had not had one formal meeting with my supervisor, only 'good general comments' about the progress of my project every three months that I used to ask for with his signature for sending to Mexico. When I finally got a meeting with him, for defining the scope of my project, for preparing my transfer exam, from an MPhil student to a PhD student he suggested that I change my project one year after starting because he commented that my project was in the 'border' of the interest of his academic group within the department."

Victor Barovic: "It is no doubt painful and troubling for a British student to go through the experience of failing one's PhD. How much harder it is for an overseas student left with no source of income, no right to work in the UK, and under the permanent threat of his visa-based status being terminated. This is the situation under which I have found myself for the last year or so." SMcC