Understanding reasons for delay

Funding councils and national policies are increasingly emphasizing shorter times to completion, represented in timelines for the DPhil in which students aim to complete the viva within 9 terms.

Recent Oxford figures show that the overall submission rate, based on the numbers submitting in less than 49 months, has improved across the University (with some variation by division).For those who started in 2010/11 the percentage submitting within this timeframe was 61%, whereas the corresponding figure for those who commenced in 2003/4 was 58%. Further increases in submission rates are anticipated as the University has implemented various policies and frameworks to encourage timely completion: all Probationer Research Students (PRS) starting a research degree course now must transfer their status before the end of their fourth term and confirm their status within nine terms of their admission as a PRS.

Furthermore, a Continuation Charge of £400 per term is now payable by research students if they have not submitted their thesis before the end of their maximum period of fee liability.

With ‘timely completion of a doctoral thesis’ a key concern of the University, both students and supervisors need to consider how students' personal circumstances can best be taken into consideration. At the same time, it is important to recognize the ways in which institutional resources and supervisors’ work demands may also influence times to completion. Useful University documents which can provide guidance include:

  • The Student Handbook (Proctors' and Assessor's Memorandum) provides an overview and links on dealing with a range of issues that may underlie progress in a student's research, for instance: health and welfare, accommodation, child-care, disability, and harassment.
  • Explanation concerning supervisor and student responsibilities is given in the Policy on Research Degrees, which specifies, in Sections 4 and 5, a range of issues student and supervisor should discuss and agree on. Observing the advice given here can greatly reduce the chance of academic problems arising.

These ideas are grouped under four headings: Individual variation; Structural influences; Academic concerns; and Environmental factors.

Individual variation

To what extent are you aware of the issues that may be affecting each student’s progress?

Katie, 44, a doctoral student in Social Sciences, has had a career managing academic-related units in higher education, and is a single parent with two children. She could only do the degree if she were funded since doing it would mean giving up her job. Nevertheless, the funding does not equal her previous salary. Due to the age of her children, she organizes her academic work around their schedules. She sets clear goals for herself noting that many of the ways in which she organizes herself have to do with her dyslexia.

Like Katie, students come to the degree with a range of past experiences and present responsibilities that may influence their ability to progress to the expected timeline.

1319, an international doctoral student in STEM, was studying full-time. However, at the start of his doctorate he also worked part-time for a large international technology company to provide financial support, and brought his family to live with him in the UK. When his paid work took increasing amounts of his time, thesis progress slowed down so he quit his job and moved with his family to finish his doctorate back in his home country. Although living there was cheaper, working in his own home rather than the university meant he encountered many distractions and demands such as doing household chores (his wife was unwell) and this negatively impacted his productivity. His college and department were pressuring him to complete, so he had committed to an unrealistically short schedule, and did not think he would finish on time.

Acme, previously an engineering consultant, and now a doctoral student in Social Sciences, has a father with Alzheimer’s in her home country. She feels deeply connected to him as he also was an academic. However, given his illness she is unable to communicate with him at a distance.

Many students at Oxford, like Acme and 1319, come from other countries so they are distanced from family networks and dealing with new cultural and sometimes linguistic challenges. Supervisor awareness of this, and other challenges related to being in a different country, can be helpful.

In some instances, the Student Counselling Service may be a useful resource. In particular, in addition to Individual counselling sessions DPhil students might find the Graduate students’ group sessions of interest. As well, the Disability Advisory Service offers advice on disability-related study support; students with depression may also be able to obtain support from this service. Support for student parents is also available and remember that students may find themselves taking on caring responsibilities other than childcare. Carers Oxfordshire provides carers with information and access to support. When a student is experiencing personal difficulties not related to their research it may be appropriate for them to seek support from their college advisor and other college networks.

There is also information and advice available concerning what to do if someone is being harassed.

Information is available on the university website for students who are experiencing health problems. Departmental and college handbooks may have further information. And, if the problem is a sustained one (health, unexpected care responsibilities or bereavement), it may be useful for the student to consider whether to suspend their status. Guidance is available here on Suspension of status. The advantage of a suspension is that it reduces the pressure felt by the student to maintain the expected timeline.

Still, students often feel responsible for dealing with such issues themselves. The role of the supervisor is to be sensitive and ensure that students know of the resources available to them. This may include a range of self-help books, such as:

Structural influences

Adequate funding and the workload associated with part-time work can also influence time to completion, particularly for those not on Research Council studentships. However, even with funding, individuals with family responsibilities, such as Katie (above), may experience difficulties.

Academic concerns

A range of academic issues can influence time to completion. Being attentive to these from the beginning can help reduce problems.

Writing is a central activity in academic work. In addition to writing connected to the research project, students can from the beginning write reports of their supervisory meetings. Such reports provide practice in writing and, as important, provide a means to verify a shared understanding of research progress. In cases of concern about improving English language skills, the Language Centre can help.

Defining the research topic can be daunting for some students, and the type of research can also influence time to completion. Students doing fieldwork, for instance, can find their timelines dramatically extended.

A consistent concern expressed by students at Oxford and elsewhere is managing time and it is essential that time management not come to seem overwhelming. The Apprise website offers resources which may help students to think more realistically about how they use their time, and recommends time management strategies too.

Environmental: supervision, mentoring, progress review, academic culture

In terms of those factors more under the control of supervisors and Directors of Graduate Studies, the quality of supervision provided and the research environment experienced by students appear to be equally important issues.

The quality of supervision is influenced by supervisory absence, whether for research or maternity leave. Informing the student well ahead of time ensures that the supervisor and the student can adequately plan alternative arrangements, including consulting the Director of Graduate Studies and the co-supervisor when relevant. Occasionally, a change of supervisor may be the best way forward.

Supervisory quality can also be a factor when the supervisor takes up a post at another institution. While supervisors may be able to arrange for students to move with them, this is not necessarily the best strategy as Diane’s story reveals.

Diane’s supervisor asked her to join him when he moved. She did so and as a result is not part of the student cohort, and feels disconcerted by the more competitive departmental environment. The department also views her [as being] behind on key doctoral milestones, though not in comparison with the timelines at her old university.

Experiences such as this suggest that the consequences for the student moving during the degree can be daunting; proposing such a move should be explored carefully with the Director of Graduate Studies before being raised with the student.

The termly report can serve as a good reminder for both student and supervisor to review any issues that may be contributing to delay.

Green and Powell (2005) highlight four factors underlying lengthy completion times and decisions to discontinue a doctorate. While such broad categorisations hide a wealth of individual variation in circumstances, they can provide good starting points for supervisors and Directors of Graduate Studies to consider reasons for delay.

  • Individual - including gender, age, ethnicity and social background
  • Structural - including levels of funding and disciplinary area
  • Academic - including previous experience and the type of research being undertaken
  • Environmental - supervision, mentoring, progress review and academic culture

There is also some evidence that academic procrastination which links behaviour (putting off academic tasks) and negative emotion (experiencing problematic anxiety) can contribute to delay, so supervisors may need to look for and catch such cues to help students deal with this negative influence on progress.

International students, younger students and male students tend to complete faster and be less likely to discontinue their studies, though some of these effects are small. More significant are factors such as poor choice of thesis topic and having a research question of unreasonable scope. Adequate funding and the workload associated with part-time work commitments are also issues. A HEFCE (2005) study into doctoral completion rates, following students who commenced in 1996-97, found that those on Research Council studentships tended to complete more quickly. In addition, students who went into doctoral study with a first-class degree showed a slight advantage in completion times. While there was variation between individual institutions, institutional-type (pre-and post-1992) had no discernible effect.

Of course, such broad categorisations hide a wealth of individual variation in circumstances, but may help to sensitise supervisors and Directors of Graduate Studies to students who may be at risk.

Discipline areas have also been found to play a role across a range of studies, with students in the natural and medical sciences completing more quickly than those in the humanities and social sciences, and vocational subjects falling in between. However, whether this is due to differences in the type of research conducted or the nature of the research community created for students in different disciplines is yet to be teased out, for instance, the HEFCE study found that the size of the research group in which students were involved was not a factor in completion.

It is difficult to get accurate information about the frequency with which supervisory change occurs. Based on a student survey, Heath (2002) reported that 18% of students had a change in principal supervisor and 11% a change in the co-supervisor: 52% of the changes were due to supervisor departure and 10% to a change in topic; only 13% were linked to breakdown in relations. In other words, supervisory change due to conflict may not be as important as that resulting from supervisory moves to other universities or extended periods of absence. What students report about the experience of supervisory change is their need to be informed early on so they are not surprised, and not to be left in limbo while new relationships are arranged.

The above text was based on:

Ahern, K. & Manathunga, C. (2004) Clutch-starting stalled research studentsInnovative Higher Education, 28 (4), 237-254.

Green, H. and Powell S. (2005) Doctoral Study in Contemporary Higher Education. Maidenhead: SHRE and Open University Press.

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervisionHigher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.

HEFCE (2005) PhD Research Degrees: Entry and Completion, Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R. and Evans, J. (2006) Review of literature on the impact of working context and support on the postgraduate research student learning experience. Higher Education Academy and UK GRAD Programme.

McAlpine, L., Paulson, J., Gonsalves, A., & Jazvac-Martek, M. (2012). ‘Untold’ doctoral stories in the social sciences: Can we move beyond cultural narratives of neglect? Higher Education Research and Development. 31 (4), 511-523.

Student Barometer, International and Domestic, Autumn 2014.

University of Oxford (2014) Postgraduate Research Annual Programme Statistics.

Further resources:

Seagram, B., Gould, J. and Pyke, W. An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degreesResearch in Higher Education, 39(3), 319-335.