Infrastructure and resources

A key part of the Education Committee’s Embedding Graduate Studies initiative (from 2005) was improving the admissions and enrolments experience for research students. An important aspect of this is institutional provision of infrastructure and resources such as: suitable working space, financial support for research activities, access to necessary equipment, adequate provision of and access to computing resources and facilities, and adequate provision of library facilities.

Suitable working space: Here a Social Sciences student talks about the value of her departmental work space and the impact that losing this space, especially the way it happened, had on her experience:

I would not have believed that [losing the space] would have had as much impact as it did … there were two other DPhil students in the office. It was actually really nice. So there was one who’s a year behind me, and then one who was a year above me, and so, all in different stages, and we just had…it was just kind of good rapport in that space. And then, the admin staff came in - a research unit was moving into the department, they needed a place. They decided that our office would be a good place for them to be, and so, part of the people coming in was to check out whether it would be a good enough space, and then to bring the [the research unit] people around so they could see the space …Yeah, so that’s how we found out, and then we got kind of a note that “We’re rearranging student space this year, so you’re likely to be moved,” you know, which is…fine in principle, like I really didn’t think it would be a problem, but what happened was that, in the interim, for some reason there was a lag time between the time that the new space was available, and we had to be out of the old space. So I kind of brought – I just took my stuff and brought it here. So, eventually, I ended up with a space, and worked there for a bit, but it was just so…different from the space that I’d worked in before. [So for the last 16 months of her programme, she only went to the department for meetings.]

Access to necessary equipment: in this case, a sciences student talks about her difficulties accessing resources in her lab, essential to advancing her research:

The current [XXX] extraction protocols used by my lab do not give clean enough [XXX] to perform a technique I need for one of my experiments … [I have] tried multiple different procedures over about 3 days which was a significant investment of time but thus far have not found any significant improvement in quality, so will have to try again next week. Also, as there are more people in my lab than previously, the equipment is often not free which has caused several delays recently …[so] to use some pieces of equipment I ended up staying very late in the evening … I will need to ensure I am quick at booking things for the next few weeks.

Resources such as space and equipment are often at a premium. While students may recognize this, they may not understand nor be kept informed about decisions that will impact their ability to progress in their work. Consider these statements in relation to your department/ faculty and how you would respond:

  • Students have adequate access to the equipment necessary for their research
  • Students have a suitable working space
  • There is appropriate financial support for research activities
  • There is adequate provision of computing resources and facilities
  • There is adequate provision of library facilities
  • Students are kept informed about changes in space and other resources that will affect their work.

The doctoral experience starts with admissions, includes services and facilities available at departmental and institutional levels and continues through to awareness of examination requirements. PGR student satisfaction with their overall research experience is strongly related to their perceptions of departmental and institutional infrastructure. For instance, Chiang (2003) reported differences in the satisfaction related to the provision of the following facilities and support services provided by their department and university: library services, individual working space, computing facilities, financial aid for research work, availability of formal communication channels, i.e. complaints and appeal procedures.

The need to think about doctoral education systemically as a complex educational undertaking emerges from the growth of the doctoral enterprise; this growth necessitates a move beyond the traditional focus on the supervisory relationship (Pearson, 1999). Pearson goes on to say that even in the early 90s, there were calls to attend to institutional resources and infrastructure - from desks to libraries - as regards their effect on the outcome of doctoral study. This position is supported by Wright & Cochrane (2000) who note the lack of attention to the role of departments in a quality PhD experience. An interesting study by Deem & Brehony (2000) emphasizes this point; they reported that access to research cultures often had a material as well as a social and cultural base. For instance, they reported that international students, in particular, experienced difficulties in accessing facilities (e.g. a place to meet informally) and resources (e.g. use of photocopiers).

The above text was based on:

Chiang, K.-H. (2003). Learning experiences of doctoral students in UK universities. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23(1/2), 4-32.

Deem, R. and Brehony, K. (2000) Doctoral students' access to research cultures: are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Pearson, M. (1999). The Changing Environment for Doctoral Education in Australia: implications for quality management, improvement and innovation. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(3), pp269-287.

Wright, T. and Cochrane, R. (2000) Factors influencing successful submission of PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 181-195.