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Also in Consultations 2003...

by Tim Brown

Below is NPC's response to a questionnaire that was used within the Eurodoc 2003 Conference in February 2003.

A PhD System
We have already participated in Eurodoc 2002 so our information is not required.

B General Questions
1. Which actions or activities has your national association been involved in this year?

One of two main projects the National Postgraduate Committee of the United Kingdom has been involved in is the recently released higher education strategy white paper. This paper covers not only funding but many other aspects of research, teaching standards and quality assurance. Our main interests as a postgraduate committee have been that the interests of funding for research are maintained and that access beyond undergraduate study is available to prospective postgraduates despite increased debt. This plays an important role in the supply of UK postgraduates.

The other main area of interest is the UK wide consultation exercise entitled Improving Standards in Research Degree Programmes. While many institutions may be able to achieve high research quality, it gives little indication as to what standards are in place to equip and develop the research student. The purpose of the consultation is therefore to set a new framework for appropriate standards in supporting PhD both during and beyond their programme. The framework includes 8 main areas being institutional arrangements, research environment, admission, supervision, review process, skills training, feedback mechanisms and appeals/complaints.

Other works have involved responding to the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) with regards to the effect it could have on quality assurance and expense in an international market. Also a number of responses have been made with regards to student complaints/appeals and quality assurance that are currently under reform in the UK.

Research has also been carried out on the growing interest in the UK to provide exclusive facilities for postgraduates and the implications it has with segregation from undergraduate students, this is currently ongoing. Work we intend to carry out over the coming year will involve postgraduate students with disabilities and the status of postgraduate students who are not undertaking traditional postgraduate courses.

2. What is the percentage of students who?
a) Manage to complete their PhD in the time period? 80%
b) Manage to complete their PhD but not in the allotted time? 10%
c) Do not complete their PhD at all? 10%

Please note these figures are estimated based on the observations of whether full time PhD students complete their research within the allotted time. This is also consistent with a survey carried out by the Wellcome Trust. In this situation the allotted time is defined as 4 years, although many PhD degrees in the UK can be expected complete in 3 years. The percentage of students completing in 3 years is significantly lower, less than 30%. Appropriate statistics from the British Library will be sought prior to the conference, which have otherwise not been accessible at present.

C Mobility

1. Give an estimate of the number of PhD students leaving your country to study abroad for:
a) A temporary stay during the PhD -
b) The complete duration of the PhD -

In the above cases, the UK Research Office in Brussels has reported that such statistics are not recorded. All they are aware of is students that leave the UK for a Marie Curie fellowship. This number is expected to be low.

1. Find one example of good practise of a university or institution to facilitate the mobility of junior researchers.

After enquiry this has been extremely complicated to find. All institutions do have a European Liaison Officer (ELO), who will help to establish better European links. Facilitation of mobility where it is strong will often be the particular research unit the researcher is working within. Some research units will encourage this more than others.

D Career Paths

1. What is the percentage of PhD students who wish to work in academia? 45% What percentage actually remain in academia? 15%

The figure of 10% going by observations and estimates from a survey by the Wellcome Trust. Statistics in this area are not available.

2. In your associations opinion, do junior researchers receive enough information about career opportunities outside academia?

3. Give examples of initiatives in your country that promote career paths outside academia.

Doctoral research degrees are extremely focused on a particular subject area such that if transferable skills and other achievements are not identified, there is little scope to allow the graduating PhD student achieve the best of their potential beyond that. Many students will claim to not know a means by which they can find appropriate careers relevant to their qualifications. This is partly due to the fact that training and equipping of students is still limited and also the reasons for undertaking doctoral research are not always clearly shown.

At present, the UK GRAD (http://www.grad.ac.uk) programme is very successful. There is a wealth of online information for postgraduate research students and also they run a 5 day residential course which includes generic skills and career development training for doctoral students. Those who attend the course have found it very successful with some very positive feedback. However, the number of students that the course is available to is limited and there is also a lack of encouragement from supervisors to send students on the course. The main recruitment agencies for doctoral students are http://www.phdjobs.com and http://www.prospects.ac.uk although the range of subjects covered may be limited in some respects to help PhD graduates find the career for them. Based on student feedback there is evidence that there is not enough information at local level from careers services and other facilities to help students find the right path. An awareness has grown across a number of institutions that training at local level to learn research methods and other general skills is necessary in order to build the students potential.

E Gender Equality

1. What is the percentage of women at:
a) Undergraduate Level 57%
b) Postgraduate Level 51%
c) PhD Level 35%
d) Post-doctoral level 35%
e) Associate professor level 30%
f) Professor level 8%

1. Specify the relevant percentages for the above listed levels in the exact sciences (mathematics, physics and chemistry).

These statistics are taken from the Department for Trade and Industry, SET programme, http://www.set4women.gov.uk, which is analysing the numbers of women in science and technology.

2. Are there any grants available for PhD or postdoc research in your country which do not include maternity leave? Please give examples.

UK Students are entitled to funding from one of the six government funded research councils (http://www.research-councils.ac.uk) if they are researching an appropriate subject. Postdoctoral research is also funded from these sources. In other disciplines, there are scholarships available and also the Arts and Humanities Research Board (soon to become a research council, http://www.ahrb.ac.uk) and the Wellcome Trust (http://www.wellcome.ac.uk) for medical sciences. As far as we are aware, there is provision available from all these funding sources to provide maternity leave. Some scholarships, however, may have various restrictions that prevent maternity leave from being possible since they are not from public sources.

3. Do you know of any initiatives at national or university level to facilitate gender equality? If so please specify.

There are certainly projects taking place at national level, although there is little evidence of work being carried out at institutional level. At national level there is the SET project run by the Department for Trade and Industry, http://www.set4women.gov.uk, which carries out research and campaigning on gender equality in education. Many trade unions for university academic staff and the Wellcome Trust (http://www.wellcome.ac.uk) are actively involved in gender equality and have dedicated representatives. The NPC itself has no active role on gender equality although the opportunity is open for somebody should they wish to take it up.

F PhD Supervision and Training

1. Is there any evaluation of PhD supervision? If so what does the evaluation involve? If not, what would you propose?

There are evaluation methods of PhD supervision in place in some cases, although often very ad-hoc and not necessarily there to help the interests of the student. It is often the case that a review is written (often annually) so that a record is in place of the students progress. This is normally used for monitoring sufficient academic progress by a progress board. There are now growing initiatives for Personal Development Planning (PDP) to be extended to research students so they can monitor their own progress. Secondly there is proposal to endorse a compulsory second supervisor so that a student has less risk of being controlled by a single supervisor.

2. With reference to Question 3 (General Questions), is there a connection between the supervision of PhD students and the drop-out rate/length of time taken to complete the PhD? Please elaborate.

The reason for late completion for a PhD is partly due to the student often not planning better in the initial stages and also lack of support from the supervisor. Neither one can be entirely responsible. However, limited supervision does discourage research students from performing as well as they otherwise could do.

3. Indicate the relative importance of the following skill alongside the PhD itself. Please also indicate whether courses are available, in general in these fields. Please use the following scale (1 not important, 3 very important):

Skill Mark Course available?
Management 3 Sometimes
Communication 3 Sometimes
Foreign Language ability 1 Yes
Computer literacy 3 Yes
Teaching 2 Sometimes
Presenting 2 Sometimes
Use of resources 2 Yes
Time management 3 Sometimes
Interview technique/ 3 Sometimes
job search

G Disussion

1. What are the current problems in your country concerning PhD students and the PhD system itself? What are the current problems concerning post-docs and other young researchers?

The following problems are of greatest awareness in the UK:

  • Identifying a suitable supervisor, developing and maintaining a working relationship. Many students are unaware of the empowerment they have as research students to produce their original work. There is a greater need for the student and the supervisor to realise their respective roles and agree to fulfil them accordingly. This is essential in terms of the disastrous problems that can result.
  • Funding for undergraduate study is ever declining, which is raising great concern as to the number of students that will continue to postgraduate study. At present the government recognises the need for increased supply of researchers to assist the economy, particularly in science and engineering.
  • Identity for postgraduate students is on the increase. Many institutions are acknowledging there is a severe lack of support and structure for the interests of their postgraduate market. This includes everything from induction, social community through to training, learning and teaching and representation.

2. What issues do you think should be included in future Eurodoc work?

On a European level, the UK would suggest the following:

  • A European recognition of doctoral level qualifications. It has been of concern that an English qualification is not comparable with one from another country. Therefore a broader recognition of qualifications from all EU countries would be of interest, while maintaining suitable quality assurance.
  • The UK GRAD programme has proven a huge success and we would encourage the programme being spread across Europe to develop consistent training for all research students.
  • We would encourage campaigning for a wider network to be created that increases the accessibility of mobility to every research student. At the moment opportunity is not so straight forward to find so a wider European network for postgraduates would be of benefit.