As the Dean of Graduate Studies at Western Sydney University, there are two areas that tend to occupy my mind: The first is the well-being of the PhD candidates that are part of my university and I feel responsible for; and, the second is the completion rates of these candidates knowing that most of them obsess over this.
In my work, the factors that I have attempted influence which assist students are as follows:
- The doctoral training program;
- The research environment establishing a cohort identity;
- The role of PhD supervisors – ensuring they are adequately trained and understand their obligations;
- The different cultural and social contexts of the candidates; and,
- Providing an environment where students feel supported and, as I have written before, understand ‘how to survive‘.
There is not a huge amount of research in this area but I have just read a couple of interesting articles about PhD completion rates. The first is written by Rachel Spronken-Smith from the University of Otago (New Zealand): Factors contributing to high PhD completion rates: a case study in a research-intensive university in New Zealand.
The focus here is on the ‘completion rate’ of PhD students from a particular cohort who have submitted their thesis for examination. As Spronken-Smith notes, however, this can be misleading because the candidates may have submitted their work but it has not been completed – and she notes that there is about a 2% different between submission and completion as some students fail and never re-submit their re-worked thesis.
The article finds that the “most common reasons for withdrawing were”:
- Broad personal circumstances (17%), medical reasons (7%) and work commitments (7%): a total of 31%,
- Transfer from a PhD to a Master’s degree (10%),
- Loss of contact with the candidate which meant the University withdrew them (8%) – something that possibly happens because candidates put off contacting supervisors to the point that they give up, and
- Lost interest/motivation (7%).
The article is worth a read but here are some key take home messages:
- Scholarships count: those on scholarship have a higher percentage completion rate than those who are having to work to survive – this is even though scholarships are not enough to live on. Students on scholarships also tend to submit faster. Lesson: if you do not have a scholarship, think hard about how you are going to navigate the multiple demands;
- University resources and creativity also count: University of Otago has a unique ‘carrot’ – there is a Postgraduate Publishing Bursary to encourage and reward submission in less than 4 years full time equivalent. The Bursary provides up to 3 months of funding at the scholarship rate for the publishing of research outputs;
- Part-time candidates find it harder than full-timers: 83% to 67% (though there is a thing called variable enrolment at 88% which are those who start at full-time but move to part-time to draw out a longer candidature or whose scholarship has run out. In my experience, this is a disciplinary thing: some disciplines (such as Education and Nursing) have a majority of part-time students as well as high completion rates. Lesson: if you are a part-time student, speak to your supervisors and come up with strategies to ensure you keep momentum;
- Investing in a Graduate Research School (GRS) is worth it (he writes with a sigh of relief): This is because the GRS sets the tone for the wider university environment. A GRS provides important “oversight of PhD candidature” and ensure high entry standards are maintained, students are supported and a sense of cohort identity can be achieved. Lesson: ensure your university employs an ‘awesome’ Dean of Grad Studies (smiley face emoji here);
- Training counts: The support that candidates receive through training contribute to engagement and increased completion rates – though the article does not have the necessary data to establish a strong causal. An unpublished internal report that reviewed the services of a personal performance coach did indicate increased completion rates. Lesson: take advantage of the opportunities available to you;
There are three more points not covered in the article which I would like to raise:
- Mental health: Recent research found that “Half Of All PhD Students Suffer From Psychological Distress.” The study found that common factors that contributed to this experience included “work overload, unrealistic demands, unsupportive supervisors or interpersonal problems at work.” Lesson: We need to be better at ensuring a supportive environment and that students understand what is expected, where to get support and what to do if it gets too much;
- Three to 3.5 years is the length of a PhD is now: we may all have romantic ideals of a PhD that takes a decade to complete but funding is increasingly limited. What we see now is that funding is limited to three years with a maximum submission of 4 years. Supervisors seem to have a harder time dealing with this than candidates. For students, the added pressure contributes to the mental health issues that are mentioned above;
- Preparedness: There is a quantum jump between under-grad and post-grad – and I have found that many do not anticipate how much more is expected of you as a candidate. With a three-year funding and a four year submission deadline now expected, there is little time to waste. Before starting a PhD, it is important to ask ‘how prepared am I’ and to think about the best pathway forward.
Food for thought…
Interesting article James, a lot of your points really resonated with me. It is great to see the initiatives you are putting in place to support PhD students at WSU.
I was a UWS PhD student ten years ago now (I cannot believe it was that long ago) and I completed in 3.5 years. I was fortunate enough to be on a scholarship and I don’t think I could have considered doing it without one. For me the most crucial element to the success of my candidature was my supervisor. We met regularly, she was encouraging, supportive and inspiring and most importantly an astute mentor. Her guidance was vital to my completion. She certainly understood her obligations and went above and beyond them.
I noticed one of the things that hasn’t been discussed here is anxiety about employment after completion. For me, as I inched closer to completion, I began to worry that I would not find full-time employment in academia. For years my goal had been to become an academic and when I realised that may not happen, or if it did it would only happen after years of short-term contracts, I became quite anxious. There wasn’t a lot of meaningful discussion from within the university about how my skills would translate in another field. I think to help relieve that anxiety PhD students need to understand how they might fit in the world outside of academia. Perhaps things have changed in the many years since I finished, I hope they have, but I suspect there are still a few students out there who are worrying about what happens after the thesis is done.
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