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On cloud nine? PhD student satisfaction in decline

VU International News and Reviews No. 123 November 03 2018

November 2018

By Sandra Hasanefendic, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The new Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) shows increasingly dissatisfied PhD students, more so as they move through their degree.

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey encompassed responses from 16,747 students from 66 universities (63 from the UK). The report shows that while  91 per cent of respondents in their first year felt that their degree was worthwhile, this declined to 80 per cent for fourth-year students, meaning that one in every five felt their degree was not worthwhile. PhDs in Mathematics were significantly more satisfied with their studies than their counterparts in Engineering.

Reasons for dissatisfaction were mainly related to the departmental research culture. Roughly 40 per cent of all respondents felt that their departments were not stimulating a vibrant research environment nor encouraging research or teaching activity, and most felt that there was no real engagement with their scientific community. More specifically, PhDs felt that their departments or faculties were not providing sufficient opportunities for involvement in the broader research community. Many also complained that their institutions did not offer adequate teaching opportunities: Only 46 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they have taught during their PhD programmes. The disappointment was also expressed over current training options especially career training, where only 27 per cent of PhDs claimed to have received training on career options, and less than 50 per cent training related to transferable skills. Only 10 per cent claimed to have taken part in an internship program.

At the same time, the survey showed high satisfaction with supervision and general acquisition of research skills.

The report has a predominant focus on the UK. It would be beneficial to conduct this survey in other parts of Europe where doctoral education provision is changing. Such a European study should also look at the correlation between social factors (loneliness, social exclusion, depression), and (lack of) departmental, faculty or university efforts to make the research environment more pleasant, positive, career skills oriented and overall scientifically

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