The Keys to Fulfilled PhDs

Supervisory support plays largest role in student satisfaction.
The Keys to Fulfilled PhDs

FOR MANY SCHOLARS, doctoral programs are the official start of their academic careers, but whether or not they are satisfied with their educational experience is largely up to their universities. How can universities ensure their PhD students will report favorable experiences—so that their doctoral programs continue to attract quality students?

To determine the biggest contributors to PhD student satisfaction, an interdisciplinary team of researchers in the U.K. examined three aspects of a doctoral study: supervisory support, departmental support, and peer group. That team comprised Gerard Dericks, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University’s School of the Built Environment; Edmund Thompson, professor of international management at the University of Bath’s School of Management; Margaret Roberts, senior lecturer at the University of West England’s Faculty of Business and Law; and Florence Phua, associate professor at the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management.

The team surveyed research-based PhD students at 63 universities across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. Respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed that their overall PhD experience corresponded to each of the following ten single-word descriptions: good, unhappy, enjoyable, satisfactory, bad, terrible, excellent, disappointing, happy, and unsatisfactory.

To pinpoint the best descriptors to use in subsequent survey questions, the researchers gathered additional insights from a focus group of 13 PhD candidates at the university of one of the authors. Based on this discussion, the research team’s next survey question asked students to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed that their supervisor, department, or peer group corresponded to five single-word descriptions: caring, considerate, encouraging, supportive, and sympathetic.

Last, they asked students to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed that their supervisors and peers were intelligent, knowledgeable, intellectual, and scholarly; and that their departments were famous in their fields, hard to get into, prominent for their research, and renowned for quality.

After controlling for variables such as age, gender, and field of study, the team found that the quality of their supervisors’ support played the largest role in student satisfaction—even larger than supervisors’ academic credentials. Departmental quality was the next most important predictor of satisfaction, followed by peer quality.

The authors also found that when departments provide adequate support—perhaps through supervisory teams—the quality of support from an individual supervisor becomes less important. The findings also suggest that “when PhD students’ supervisory and departmental support needs are met, their satisfaction with their PhD is not affected by either peer academic qualities or peer supportiveness.” The authors conclude that doctoral student supervisors and their departments should consider working jointly “perhaps more closely than many currently do.”

The authors predict that, in the coming years, doctoral student satisfaction will have a greater effect on a university’s funding and reputation. “National governments now assess student satisfaction at both undergraduate and master degree levels,” they write. “There is little reason to doubt that formal government-sponsored assessment of PhD student satisfaction will likewise be integrated into university ranking and funding systems.”

“Determinants of PhD Student Satisfaction: The Roles of Supervisor, Department, and Peer Qualities” appeared online ahead of print April 3, 2019, in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. Read it here.