Just who is working for PhD students?

If I remember just two conversations from my time as a (postgraduate education) sabbatical officer, they will be the ones I had with university staff who made memorable remarks reflecting on their own times as postgraduate research students.

“Nothing has changed since my day”, said the first. “I think I enjoyed it”, said the second. After all, who would want to be a postgraduate research student? Long, lonely hours, picking away through some obscure area of research, for years at end. Drifting between a staff and student status, with no consistency as to how they’re applied. At least that’s it at its worst.

At its best, being a postgraduate researcher is a curious exploration, revelling in the joy of a topic you love – but you know all too well what the tougher days feel like.

That holistic experience of research inevitably has a significant part to play in postgraduates’ career decisions. And as the number of people having a doctoral education continues to increase, fewer and fewer PhD students are continuing on to academic research afterwards.

This means that supporting PhD students through their degree to develop into well-rounded independent researchers and leaders is more important than ever. At the centre of this is what often gets referred to as the ‘research environment’ – a complex and extremely personalised mixture of factors such as supervision, working culture, and wider training.

Two to tango

Increasingly, there’s a question that remains unanswered about who and what doctoral level education is for – the supervisor or the supervisee. This is not to say that they are mutually exclusive, but it’s important to recognise that at its best, a PhD can be a project of joint development. Whether a student graduates and continues their research in a higher education setting or elsewhere, a broad understanding of the process of research is an essential feature of personal development through the course of their PhD.

I was reminded of all this last week, when Amanda Solloway, minister for Science, Research, and Innovation spoke at Vitae Connections Week 2020, and expressed her surprise at hearing from a PhD student who, in spite of enthusiasm and optimism, didn’t see their future in research. Having heard much the same from many fellow PhD students during my time as a sabbatical officer, I didn’t share the surprise. Facing the prospect of the academic job market and the culture within, it’s not surprising that many students want to look elsewhere for a career.

Universities themselves, at least, seem relatively interested in supporting their PhD students. One imagines that most REF submissions in the coming year will include work produced at least in part by their PhD students, and including evidence in their environmental statements to that effect. In this sense, PhD students are at the frontline of research being done, so institutional-level support and recognition for the work being done is paramount.

Many universities now have some form of a doctoral college, to ensure that PhD students are able to access training and careers advice outside of their discipline, and build a community with their peers. With this generation of PhD students being the next generation of PIs, universities recognise the value of investing their students to ensure a better future for themselves.

The student struggle

Students’ unions, on the other hand, seem to particularly struggle with PhD students’ issues. The number of full time representatives across the UK with experience of postgraduate research is vastly outnumbered by those who are in or have just left an undergraduate degree programme. This is perfectly natural when considering the relative numbers of students at the different levels of study, but it does highlight the need for strong and coherent representative structures for PhD students with in unions.

SUs have a responsibility in engaging their community of PhD students effectively, taking an interest in active representation, to show them that they can tackle the issues at their institution. My experience of talking to PhD students from all disciplines and modes of study showed me that far too many members of the community see the problems they face within academia as wholly insurmountable and fundamentally ingrained. It’s up to SUs to facilitate the community coming together and showing them that they’re not by giving them the space and appropriate representation.

The natural place to coordinate and encourage this would be the NUS, which since the merging of the National Postgraduate Committee in 2009 has been the national group for all students, including postgraduates. The last notable work that NUS did on postgraduate researchers was their survey on Postgraduates Who Teach in 2013 – an issue which affects large numbers of PhD students, but arguably not central to their experience and development as researchers.

NUS has been mostly quiet on issues facing PhD students in recent years, but it is important to remember that Postgraduate Researchers are students as well, and have rights as such. While the NUS seem to have welcomed the announcement of a review of NSS, there continues to be no such comparable metric for PhD students. The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), run by AdvanceHE, provides an informative overview of the issues that PhD students face on a very large scale, but is focused on academic experience rather than anything more holistic.

All this is important, because training students to doctoral level is resource intensive. Supervisors need to invest significant amounts of time and energy discussing and developing their supervisees’ ideas in order for them to succeed. Research Councils spend millions of pounds every year on tuition fees, stipends, and other expenses for their students, and yet seemingly are happy to let the environment for PhD students go unscrutinised for the duration of their courses.

While OfS has been regulating universities for over 2 ½ years now, searching their publications for ‘postgraduate research’ returns two briefing notes, let alone regulatory notices. For all that can be said about undergraduate continuation and completion rates, there is nothing equivalent for postgraduates, let alone postgraduate researchers.

Available minutes of meetings of the student panel reveal that the panel has not once discussed factors pertaining to postgraduate research students. Similarly, there has been little mention of even postgraduate issues at all from the OfS board itself – most mentions are about progression to the level of study, not in reference to the environment once students get there.

Both of these belie the fact that OfS and UKRI have one formal collaboration agreement each – with each other. Specifically, it says that they will work together to “develop a comprehensive framework/strategy to monitor the quality and standards of research awards” (an agreement which had no mention in OfS board papers at the time).

Mind the gap

What all this demonstrates is that while there are considerable local efforts to improve the research environment for PhD students at a local level, they continue to fall between the gap between being students and researchers at the highest level of administration, something which Sam Gyimah picked up on when he talked of the Department for Education as thinking of universities in terms of undergraduate study only.

As I highlighted at the beginning, development of the postgraduate research (and more widely, ECR) environment requires significant work – and perhaps trails behind other levels of study by several decades. It is, however, a unique area where students’, universities’, and regulators’ interests – at least in the first instance – all seem to align.

The importance and prevalence of postgraduate research, and the importance of the type environment that surrounds it is only going to increase in the coming years. It would be a missed opportunity if a joint effort to improve the current situation was not taken up urgently.

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