Intellectual climate

There is much useful information for individual supervisors and students regarding institutional expectations in the Policy on Research Degrees and the Codes of Practice of each Division, as well as department/ faculty-specific documentation pertinent to your unit. While the supervisory relationship is important, the intellectual climate in the broader department/ faculty and Division is also key to helping students feel integrated rather than isolated. A supportive intellectual climate can enhance student progress and support the supervisory role.

This Oxford supervisor expresses very concretely how his faculty is attempting to enhance the intellectual climate.

I mean, there are things which I guess bolster the supervisor role. I think the Faculty is getting better – it’s not perfect yet – but we have a doctoral thesis seminar, where final year students present work in progress to a group of other final year students, and a couple of members of Faculty attend as well. That’s... I think basically designed to be a…give the students practice at presenting their work in front of a group of smart [academics in their discipline] who aren’t necessarily in their area, which is incredibly important in the discipline, and is very hard for a supervisor to provide because it’s very hard for a supervisor to feign ignorance of the stuff that the student is talking about. So that’s something which I think is really crucial for the students but I wouldn’t provide, so I’m glad that that’s in existence.
There are also some more informal, student-run, paper-giving societies, where, without Faculty input, they just give papers to each other. I think all these things, you know, turn know, enable us to turn out good [people in our field]. It’s something that, you know…if all you had was the supervisor relationship, you would get people writing good theses, but you wouldn’t really…you wouldn’t necessarily turn out good [people in the field], namely people who can explain their work to other[s in the same discipline] but who aren’t in the [same specialist] area, or teach undergraduates, or, you know, x, y, z.
Certainly, in my view, the thesis is part of what we’re getting our students to do, and the supervisor is very important for that, but it’s really a bad idea to think that what we’re doing is turning out graduate students who have written a thesis. We should be turning out [disciplinary academics], and in doing that, the Faculty has to have lots of other things going on apart from just working on the thesis.

Generally, working in research groups or teams, as often occurs in the Physical and Medical Sciences, can create a beneficial intellectual climate and reduce isolation but this is not always the case, as this student notes.

The laboratory where I work [...] is lacking in postdoctoral researchers who can provide day-to-day help with my research. This is probably due to the department having difficulty obtaining funding for such posts. As a result, the group lacks ‘critical mass’ for a really good scientific environment. This has not helped my progress.

However, overall at Oxford, 84% of graduate research students responding to a recent survey agreed that they felt included in the research community.

In thinking about intellectual climate and helping students feel integrated rather than isolated, consider how you would respond to these items:

  • Most academic staff in my department attend DPhil students’ research presentations.
  • My department provides opportunities for social contact with other research students.
  • My department provides opportunities for me to become involved in the broader research culture.
  • The research ambience in my department or faculty stimulates doctoral work.
  • DPhil students are invited to attend departmental social events.

Reflect on the extent to which PGR students are included within the research ethos of your department/ faculty, with the help of the Intellectual Climate Tool.

Some student-only or combined student/ staff strategies for encouraging greater interaction amongst doctoral students in the department or research group include:

  • Journal clubs - students meet regularly to discuss selected journal articles.
  • Writing groups - students meet regularly to share and give feedback on thesis and other writing, usually in groups of 3-5.
  • Student seminars - a programme of seminars by research students.
  • Student conferences - a mock/mini departmental conference with papers presented by research students.
  • Common rooms - with facilities that would encourage students to meet there.

It is also possible, as in the following case study, to create a research team environment even if students have somewhat distinct research projects.

Case study: Paul

Creating a doctoral community - fostering a sense of intellectual community for doctoral students in Social Sciences by means of a ‘lab group’ and a blog

Students in the social sciences may lack a set of community bonds, or a way into understanding the academic and professional worlds in which they may undertake a career, because their doctoral study is frequently solitary; this is unlike the experience of many doctoral students in the natural sciences who work in laboratory groups alongside each other and more experienced colleagues.

In response to this Paul has adapted this ‘natural science’ approach by organising his doctoral students into a group (called a ‘lab group’) with which he meets weekly and whose members, including Paul himself, contribute to a lab blog (a kind of collective research diary). These two activities are a forum for progressing research: for discussing theory, recent literature and emerging research trends; for sharing ideas and experiences (e.g. regarding methods and ethics); and even for collaborative writing and publishing. As a consequence, students are encouraged to step back from their research and reflect, to use each other as a resource or repository of information and help, to build up a history of the collective research project, and to develop an experience of collegiality and peer review. Also, the supervisor keeps on top of what is going on with all of his students so that in subsequent one-to-one supervision meetings he can spend more time focusing on what lies ahead than what has passed. And, an advantage for all involved is that access to both activities can be maintained, via Skype and the internet, wherever a group member is in the world.

Here are some comments from a student member of the lab group:

Doing a DPhil degree can be an isolated process, particularly when we lack either the medium to share our findings or the opportunity to engage with subjects outside our immediate area of research. The lab blog has facilitated overcoming that isolation, not only when exercising new concepts or theories with fellow lab researchers, but also in enforcing the discipline of writing, however little, on a weekly basis. Moreover, belonging to a ‘research group’ generates a communal spirit that is personally productive.

Questions to consider about the case study

Is this something you could initiate with all, or even some, of your supervisees?

If so, and you would like more information on how to set up and run a lab group, blog, or collaborative writing and publishing, please email Paul Jepson.

Doctoral study is simultaneously an academic and social experience, a good intellectual climate provides both social and academic integration, and it may often be difficult in practice to separate the two. Student attrition and completion times are related to students' lack of social integration in the broad student community and academic integration in relations with academics in the department. Achieving such integration is a departmental responsibility and not just a supervisory responsibility. Fostering a sense of collegiality amongst research students and encouraging students to participate in the intellectual life of their department needs to occur at departmental/ faculty level as well as be supported by individual supervisors.

What is a good intellectual climate for postgraduate research? What does it feel like? Students feel respected, supported, stimulated and involved. There is recognition that research students are not just engaged in research, but in developing their identities as researchers. They experience opportunities to interact with fellow research students, academics in their department and in their broader field and feel well integrated rather than isolated. Obviously, this involves positive academics’ attitudes towards students in their department, as well as provision of specific departmental programs, activities and opportunities.

International and part-time students may be prone to isolation because they experience more barriers in trying to access peer cultures and academic cultures. Students in science disciplines tend to be more satisfied with the intellectual climate they have experienced and therefore less isolated than students in humanities and social science disciplines. This disciplinary difference is commonly attributed to the greater prevalence of research groups/ teams in science research. However, there is no reason why arts and social science disciplines can't improve the departmental integration and intellectual climate they provide for their students, though it may require more deliberate interventions in these disciplines (being less likely to occur as an indirect outcome of the modes of research employed).

The above text was based on:

Deem, R. & Brehony, K. (2000) Doctoral Students’ Access to Research Cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Golde, C. (2000) Should I stay or should I go? Students' descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199.

Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R. and Evans, J. (2006) The Impact of Working Context and Support on the Postgraduate Research Student Learning Experience, Higher Education Academy commissioned literature review. This summary is also available.

Wright, T. & Cochrane, R. (2000) Factors Influencing Successful Submission of PhD Theses. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 181-195.

Statistics on Oxford graduate student's feelings of involvement in the research community come from responses to Student Engagement surveys piloted at Oxford in Hilary Term 2013. For more information about the surveys, contact Dr Gosia Turner.