Research into doctoral education

…the more research is actually going into how this [doctoral education] works and how it doesn’t work, the better, because it’s always seemed to me that PhDs are so hit or miss as to whether they come together and work. But I’ve found this [i.e. doctoral supervision]…not necessarily in work hours or in actual intellectual…requirements or anything, but just in terms of emotional stress levels, definitely up there amongst the things that one does as a lecturer, just because you feel like someone’s potential career is riding on what you do for them.

The above is a quote from an interview with an Oxford supervisor musing on the tensions and pleasures involved in doctoral supervision, which included feeling a sense of responsibility for the student’s future, discovering that their student can write well, and pondering the principles involved in taking on supervision in an unknown area. Such thoughts and feelings as these among Oxford academics are currently being researched by the Oxford Learning Institute and further quotes on aspects of doctoral supervision are to be found throughout this website.

Parallel research is also ongoing as regards DPhil student experience and excerpts can be found on different pages of this website. The implications for supervisors include the following:

  • The need to stress to students how important it is to create for themselves networks of support (family, friends, peers, other members of staff), not just the supervisor as main point of contact; and to help them do this.
  • That one of the most helpful things supervisors can help foster in their students is time management skills; students often report struggling to develop clear timeframes for work.
  • That supervisors be sensitive to different stress windows which students experience; students may be loath to raise these due to lack of confidence or fear of not measuring up.

This research was initiated by the Oxford CETL Preparing for Academic Practice (2005-2010) and continues today. We hope that supervisors and students will find the ideas and strategies on the website drawn from this, national and international research useful. If you would like any further information on any of the research mentioned above, please contact Professor Lynn McAlpine.

One of the data collection tools used by CETL researchers is a Weekly log. Individual students report that it is useful for them in thinking about their progress, their investment of time, and occasionally their self-sabotaging strategies. A further Tool to Aid Reflection on progress with doctoral work, derived from the weekly logs, is also available.

See also Apprise, a repository of useful tools emerging from research done by Oxford and other CETL Network universities.

Research and policy

Until about 10-15 years ago, doctoral education did not attract the attention of higher education researchers; there was more focus on the undergraduate experience. However, in the recent past, this lack has begun to be addressed and over time one sees shifts in what is examined. Australia was probably the first English-speaking country to see this growth in interest, followed by the US and more recently the UK. In Australia and the UK where there are national higher education policies, links between research interests and policies are apparent. In continental Europe, change has been initiated by the Bologna Declaration. In contrast, North American higher education policies exist only at the state or provincial levels. An ongoing concern in the literature is the issue of the discourse we use in describing doctoral education; there is an accountability discourse around training and skills that contrasts with a learning discourse around education and knowledge.

Research in Australia

In Australia, there has been a biennial conference on research education since 1994 (Quality in Postgraduate Research). Initially, many papers addressed supervisory relationships, later student support and teaching of skills, e.g. library research skills. Still later, there was a shift to examining supervision as teaching, as pedagogy. Concurrently, increasing public policy oversight led to discussion of the selection, retention and timely completion of students and quality assurance and enhancement issues. Most recently one sees, as in the UK, concern with transferable skills development and students as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy.

Research in the US

Here, the focus has been somewhat different. As noted above there are no national policies, although the Council for Graduate Studies provides a hub of communication to enable comparisons and sharing of ‘good policy’. In general, research has been driven by trust funds directed at action-based research, in which funding is used to support and evaluate changes in institutional policies and practices. The Carnegie Foundation funded an Initiative on the Doctorate with a departmental-disciplinary focus on preparing students to be ‘stewards of the discipline’. And, the Preparing Future Faculty project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Science Foundation, and the Atlantic Philanthropies, was directed at preparing doctoral students to be better teachers, particularly addressing the value of providing opportunities for them to experience life at institutions other than their own. At the same time, the Centre for Institutional Research on Graduate Education has undertaken studies in the natural sciences examining post-graduation employment, for instance. Much more recently than in Australia, a group of international researchers examining doctoral education has established itself and meets annually at the American Educational Research Association.

Research in the UK

There has been an ongoing somewhat critical dialogue beginning in the mid 90s. At the same time, ESRC and HEA calls for research into doctoral education, for instance, have led to more concrete studies examining the research literature and post-graduation employment patterns. In addition, given policy concerns about employability and skills training, Vitae and the UK funding council studies have generated surveys of post-graduation employment possibilities. So, one sees similar trends to Australia: national policies that are influencing researcher and research council agendas. Interestingly, there is still not an organization of researchers that meets regularly to explore these issues – although a European Association for Learning and Instruction Special Interest Group, Researcher Education and Careers, now meets annually.

The above text is based on:

Boud, D., & Costley, C. (2007). From project supervision to advising: New conceptions of the practice. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(2), 119-130.

Johnson, L., Lee, A., & Green, B. (2000). The PhD and the autonomous self: gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 135-147.

Kiley, M. (2006) Overview, Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) web site. Page updated and replaced with About QPR in April 2013. 

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.

Mills, D., Jepson, A., Coxon, T., Easterby-Smith, M., Hawkins, P., and Spencer, J. (2006) Demographic review of the UK social sciences. Swindon: ESRC.

Sursock, A. & Smidt, H. (2010) Trends 2010: A decade of change in European Higher Education. Brussels: European University Association.

Additional resources:

Carnegie Foundation website.

Preparing Future Faculty website.

Vitae website.