What is the PhD experience?

A new Hepi report paints a bleak picture of research cultures for PhD candidates. Debbie McVitty compares the findings to PRES to reflect on how the PhD experience is defined and measured.

Doing a PhD is frequently tough. But why? And to what extent should universities feel responsible for doing something about it?

The latest report for Hepi, PhD life: the UK student experience, authored by PhD candidate and Hepi intern Bethan Cornell, brings together UK data from Nature’s most recent annual global survey of PhD candidates with data from Wellcome’s recent survey on research culture to examine some aspects of the experience of 1,069 UK PhD candidates.

The headline results are concerning, if not necessarily surprising. The average PhD candidate works 47 hours per week – which at a standard Research Council stipend works out at less than minimum wage. Over a third (37 per cent) have sought help for anxiety and depression attributed to PhD study.

63 per cent see their supervisor for less than one hour per week – which seems fantastically frequent to this English PhD graduate, but given that 78 per cent are satisfied with their degree of independence I suspect the threshold for candidates experiencing a problematic level of supervisorial inattention is rather lower than one hour a week.

And while 68 per cent report they feel safe at work, a quarter have been bullied and 47 per cent have witnessed bullying. One fifth have faced discrimination and only 26 per cent believe complaints regarding bullying would be acted upon.

A gloomy picture indeed. But one that is distinct from that painted by the annual postgraduate research experience survey (PRES), administered by Advance HE. PRES explores different aspects of the researcher experience – and, for what it’s worth, includes those undertaking research Masters as well as PhD candidates.

PRES 2019 found that 81 per cent of PGRs definitely or mostly agree that they are satisfied with their experience. Supervision and support for development of research skills consistently score particularly well.

Research culture is the area where PRES respondents are least satisfied, at an average of 63 per cent – the question structure was changed for 2019, but the focus is on the quality of the research community – opportunities to discuss your research, a departmental seminar programme, and the important, but less tangible sense that the research environment and community “stimulates your work” which I’d interpret as being a source of positive motivation, rather than a drain on your energies.

None of this directly captures the aspects of research culture that the Nature/Wellcome data picks up: the long working hours, the competitiveness, and the apparent tolerance in some areas for abusive behaviours. Though PRES 2019 did find gaps in satisfaction between white and BAME ethnic groups, and notes that PGR wellbeing, especially in the area of anxiety scores significantly lower than in the general UK population, albeit on average higher than for undergraduate students.

All this points to the need to think carefully about how “experience” is defined and measured – and being prepared to adapt thinking when new evidence comes to light.

Aspects of experience

Within any PhD there’s a bunch of potential factors in play. There’s the tangibles of the research culture in terms of opportunities for learning and development: whether you’re able to access training that’s suitable for your research area, how frequently you should expect to see your supervisors and how frequently they’re supposed to appraise you and your work, and the resources that are available to support your research. These are the sorts of things that used to be set out in Chapter B12 of the Quality Code, which now just says, “Where the provider offers research degrees, it delivers these in appropriate and supportive research environments.”

There’s also the tangible aspects of the research culture in the form of terms and conditions – for example, whether it’s technically possible to take sick leave, whether you have a stipend and how comfortable it makes you, and your employment conditions if you are asked to teach, all fall into this category. These issues are not always considered as part of the academic quality picture, and can leave PhD candidates disappearing into the gap between student and employee rights.

Then there are the intangible aspects of research cultures – things that aren’t written down anywhere but that you quickly learn are generally considered essential to being successful. In this basket probably goes long hours working cultures, isolation, what actually happens when you meet your supervisors, the punishments that might be meted out if you somehow aren’t perceived as fitting in – and the personal penalties and compromises that might be the cost of fitting in.

There’s also a question about your personal motivations and longer term aspirations and the likelihood that you’ll be able to achieve your goals. What’s frequently heartbreaking about achieving a PhD is that the level of competition for academic jobs is such that it’s not nearly enough to “only” have a PhD – and if academia is what you’ve set your heart on, the pressure, anxiety and disappointment as you try and fail to gain a spot in your field can be very tough indeed. Again, there can also be penalties that come with success – enforced mobility, delays to starting a family, and job insecurity, as well as those toxic cultures that some report.

Though universities have done a lot to develop pathways beyond academic careers (and manage candidates’ expectations), it’s a bit of an issue that in the Nature/Wellcome data only 54 per cent agreed that their supervisor is open to them pursuing a career outside academia, and only 25 per cent felt their supervisor had useful things to say about careers outside academia.

And once you’ve wrapped up all these elements, you then have to filter them through people’s personal circumstances, disposition, social capital, professional competencies, and general resilience. In my subject, taking on a PhD required a degree of independence and ability to manage my time that I’m not convinced I was really ready for – and if actually doing a PhD is difficult, not really doing it properly and then realising you have a lot of ground to make up is pretty anxiety-inducing.

Though my experience is hardly universal, it’s clear I’m not alone in having suffered mental ill-health during my PhD. But should it have been that way? Was I the problem, or was the PhD? I’m not sure it’s that cut and dried.

Appropriate and supportive

Going back to the Hepi report, the Nature data usefully ranks PhD candidates top concerns. The five most frequently cited are:

  • The difficulty of maintaining work/life balance – 37 per cent
  • Imposter syndrome – 32 per cent
  • Uncertainty about my job/career prospects – 30 per cent
  • The number of available faculty research jobs beyond postdoc – 27 per cent
  • Concern about my mental health as a result of PhD study – 26 per cent

Granted, this question didn’t ask about really concrete issues like “I can’t get access to the resources I need”. But it’s striking that these concerns represent such a mix of the personal, and environmental. And there’s not an obvious response – offer a training session on work/life balance? This assumes the candidate is the problem, not the culture. Set a standard limiting working hours and force everyone to comply? But what if you do need to run an experiment for 24 hours at a time? And how would you force compliance in any case? And wouldn’t candidates resent having their time policed like that?

What this indicates, to me, is the necessity of active stewardship of research communities – with shared (and well-enforced) codes of practice, clarity about the competencies required to be a full and active participant in that community and the rights and responsibilities of different members of the community, and, vitally, forums for debate and challenge about the evolution of the community, in which diverse voices and perspectives are actively sought, and actions taken in response.

When you’re an undergraduate student, there’s a bunch of things you can reasonably expect from your institution, and if you don’t get them, you can be rude in the NSS, or raise a complaint, or start a campaign with your SU. When you’re a PhD candidate, variations of these things are available, but the lines are blurrier, the issues frequently less tangible and more personal, and the consequences more impactful. Both the Nature/Wellcome data and PRES create a way in to talking about these issues, but neither can really capture and encapsulate the experience of doing a PhD.

3 responses to “What is the PhD experience?

  1. Having just finished a year as a postgraduate sabbatical officer, as a sabbatical from my own PhD, hardly any of this is really surprising – and I hope it wouldn’t be to anyone who works in researcher development. It also reiterates my usual gripe with PRES, that it really measures PGR academic experience, rather than a more holistic student experience, which is what I think there needs to be an increased emphasis on going forwards for reasons to long to contain here! Certainly, as you point to, establishing respective responsibilities across institutions for the development of postgraduate researchers alongside better working culture is going to be the real challenge to make progress on any of the quantitative data here.

    The last paragraph is particularly interesting, and was really one of my main focuses as an officer: how can SUs themselves better support PGRs, who after all, are as much their members as undergraduates. If there’s anything that this article points to, it’s that they’re (mostly) no where near as equipped as they could be to support their PGR members and champion their rights as students.

  2. So far as I can see on a quick scan, there is no summary background data on the numbers of doctorate students in the different disciplines in the UK, nor an indication of the FT/PT split, and nor was there in the research conducted here any consideration of part-time students or any variation of students’ experiences across the disciplines.

    Depressingly, then, this report falls into the pattern we’ve seen for 30 years or more of making invisible part-time doctorate students, and short-changing older doctorate students in the humanities and social sciences (who are often – if not normally in some disciplines – having to self-finance). (I note that there is some cursory data on age range – but let’s have it for different disciplines.)

    I would conjecture that the experience of the 35year-old, self-payer, on a part-time programme in the humanities and social sciences and working largely in a solitary way (and perhaps pursuing the PhD in the evenings, on top of a full-time job and running a family) is fundamentally different from that of the 25-year old full-time student on a stipend in the laboratory sciences.

    My apologies to the author if all or any of this is in the report. Indeed, I hope that I am wrong.
    Kindly
    Ron Barnett

  3. I am not really surprised by the results as I have heard so many stories from science and medicine students about some of these issues. However, I think that while the report is interesting it is also misleading. To have a real sense of the experience we need to see the data and analysis for each school and discipline within it. It makes no sense to me to have a blanket analysis. As the previous commentators have noted the experiences are different within social science compared to science etc. and also between full and part time study.

    I am also of the opinion that if you surveyed the perceptions and experiences of PhD supervisors that it would offset/counter some of the issues. It is after all just a one sided view. Also, many supervisors suffer from the same issues. Sadly, this appears to be the nature of academic research. That of course does not make it right or acceptable.

    It does provide food for thought though and as such has motivated me to investigate this within my own school so thank you for your efforts on this.

    Best regards
    Audrey Paterson

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