to increase PhD student satisfaction, recruit academic supervisors who contribute positively to the departmental culture

This is a guest post by Dr Florence Phua, Associate Professor in the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading. It draws on her and her co-authors recent research into the determinants of PhD student satisfaction, and the role of the supervisor in context in providing that satisfaction. The full published article can be found here.

Outside a building, on a grassy bank, a sign reads 'now hiring'.

PhD programmes have historically had around a 50% drop out rate. This is costly both in terms of the long-term future outcomes of those students who drop out, and the resources and social capital invested into them by their institutions. Better understanding of the determinants of PhD student satisfaction may help reduce student attrition, and improve the overall experience of PhD students who do complete, which is often poor.

Our recent research findings highlight the importance of the overall department in PhD student satisfaction. In particular, we show not just how crucial the supportiveness of the supervisor is in predicting student satisfaction – which was already well known, but also that the supportiveness of the overall department is independently significant. Moreover, we find that the academic qualities of the overall department trump those of the supervisor in importance. These are novel findings within the available literature.

In terms of practical implications, our results would seem consistent with recent trends towards PhD programmes that both increasingly incorporate supervisory teams rather than single supervisors, and provide more formal research training that is often department rather than supervisor led. It points to the importance of promoting interaction between PhD students and researchers throughout their department.

Of particular interest and perhaps counter-intuitively, our research talks about department’s efforts at attracting ‘star’ academics as being ‘less advantageous’ than equivalent efforts towards cultivating more collegial faculties. What this implies is that the personal qualities of academic staff, rather than their scholarly aptitude are deemed to be more important to PhD student satisfaction. Therefore when recruiting, universities should perhaps place greater weight on the merits of potential candidates in the context of the wider department rather than in isolation.

A graphic of quoted text in blue, reading "the personal qualities of academic staff, rather than their scholarly aptitude are deemed to be more important to PhD student satisfaction"

Taken these findings together, we argue that PhD students value the supportiveness of supervisors over their academic qualities because an individual supervisor may not necessarily be best positioned to advise on any particular academic matter. Instead, the varied academic guidance and skills which need to be acquired by a given student to complete their PhD may be better supplied across the knowledge base of an entire department. However, when it comes to forms of support, students may derive the greatest benefits from closer individual relationships (i.e. a supervisor) as opposed to more broad-based assistance.

Gerard Dericks, Edmund Thompson, Margaret Roberts & Florence Phua (2019) Determinants of PhD student satisfaction: the roles of supervisor, department, and peer qualitiesAssessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:7, 1053-1068.

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