Supervision and better integration key to a good PhD programme

Good supervision and the sense of being integrated in a research environment make PhD students more independent researchers while reducing stress levels. These are the findings of a new study of quality in PhD programmes which the Centre for Teaching and Learning has just completed for the Talent Development Committee at Aarhus University

2014.02.10 | Helle Bjørnbak Goduscheit

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By Kirsten Sparre


The study of quality in PhD programmes spans the university’s four graduate schools and is based on a questionnaire completed by 1,780 past and present PhD students.

The aim has been to find out whether PhD students are thriving, and what is required for a PhD programme to be successful.


The study shows that, in general, by far the majority of PhD students are happy with their programme. They are enthusiastic about their subject and assume considerable responsibility for their PhD project. Most of the students present their findings at conferences and in journals, and many are keen to work as researchers once they have finished their PhD.


“However, the PhD programme is mentally demanding for many and associated with considerable uncertainty. The study shows that more than one in three students often feel exhausted, and that 13 per cent often or almost always experience severe stress symptoms such as headaches and insomnia,” says Associate Professor Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, who was project manager of the study.


Uncertainty and loneliness

The sense of uncertainty often relates to the fact that PhD students feel unsure about whether they are meeting the required academic standards.


“Here, differences are seen between the various PhD programmes. In general, PhD students at ARTS and BSS feel they have a bigger mental workload, and the study shows that the degree of uncertainty and the pressure of work can lead directly to a feeling of not being integrated in a research environment,” explains Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


According to the responses, PhD students at ARTS and BSS find it hard to become integrated in the research environments, which are very competitive, and where the feedback on research is often harsh and negative.


Many PhD students also feel lonely. Thirteen per cent feel lonely in the workplace, while 16 per cent feel on their own academically. Again, this is more common at ARTS and BSS.


“This is a failure on the part of the supervision. There is definitely scope for improvement,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


Good advice: Focus on integration

The study also analysed the responses to see what makes a PhD programme a positive experience. Again, the responses point to good supervision and integration in the research environment as being key factors.


“PhD students who feel well integrated in a research environment feel less exhausted, not as socially or academically isolated, less unsure about the quality of their own work and more satisfied with the progress of their project,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


The study sends a clear message to the graduate schools: Systematic focus is required on integrating PhD students into the research environments.


“It doesn’t cost a lot, and there are many ways of going about it. However, it is important to establish fora where students present their own research and watch senior researchers in action. Moreover, it is necessary to talk about research, and to do so in a way where both the tone and approach are constructive,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


She points out that in this regard, dry fields of study such as ARTS and BSS can learn something from the wet subject areas Health and Science and Technology.


“There is a price to be paid internally for the highly competitive culture in the dry areas, while the collegial team-based structures in the wet areas have some positive effects, even though it may well be necessary to look more closely at individual PhD programmes,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


Good supervision highly important

Supervision is another area which has a key bearing on whether students have a positive experience at graduate school. Seventy-seven per cent of the students said that they were satisfied with their supervision, and the study showed that the level of satisfaction is an important factor in other areas.


“Satisfied PhD students feel less unsure about the quality of their own work, more confident about their own research competencies, and they also feel more independent. They also feel less exhausted and are more satisfied with how their project is progressing,” explains Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


However, one in eight PhD students were not satisfied with the supervision they received, which, according to Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, underlines the need to take a systematic approach to developing the supervision.


“In addition to the subject-specific academic supervision, the supervisor also needs to help with procedural aspects such as project management and time management, and to advise on the teaching assignments which are part and parcel of a PhD programme. If necessary, the supervision should also cover personal issues,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


Hands-on supervision can be good

In the questionnaire, the students were also asked what makes supervision a good experience. What stood out most was the need for a respectful relationship between the PhD student and the supervisor, one characterised by openness and a pleasant tone, and where the supervisor acknowledges the student’s efforts.


“The experience of good supervision also depends on how often you meet, and generally the PhD students answered the more often the better. Finally, the PhD students appreciate a certain degree of control and intervention. They want their supervisor to take a hands-on approach in relation to planning meetings, organising the process and the academic content,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.


However, even though hands-on is appreciated, it must not be overdone, because otherwise it impacts the students’ sense of independence and diminishes their faith in their own abilities as researchers.


The study also showed that hands-on supervision is often used in externally financed projects, and that a relatively high percentage of students in the wet subject areas feel that they are being used as dogsbodies and exploited by their supervisors. 


“This means that we should probably take a closer look at what happens when supervisors wear two hats and assume the role of both supervisor and employer on projects where they are answerable to an external partner,” says Gitte-Wichmann Hansen.


A dream job

For Gitte Wichmann-Hansen and the Centre for Teaching and Learning, the study of quality in PhD programmes has been something of a dream job.


“Generally speaking, it is valuable, reassuring and visionary that the university management is sufficiently courageous and interested in systematically shedding light on the PhD students’ situation, thereby making it possible to develop and strengthen the PhD programmes on an informed basis,” she says.


However, the task has also been valuable for the centre’s own work in relation to both courses and the possibility of contributing to international research.


“This comprehensive study which spans all the academic areas is the first of its kind to be carried out in Denmark. The results confirm that the trends identified in international research also apply in Denmark. Finally, we have produced findings on hands-on and hands-off supervision which have never before been analysed as thoroughly as here,” says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.

Thias article was also published in CULtivate 04, February 2014

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