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There is a general agreement within the European Higher Education that doctoral degree study is about the creation of original knowledge. Doctoral degree is the highest academic qualification that an institution can award. Registration periods for a UK doctorate are typically four years full-time or six to eight years part-time. To be awarded with this degree, student needs to reach or exceed the required level of achievement (QAA 2011). According to The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA 2011), these achievements are demonstrated by the creation and interpretation of new knowledge through original research, acquisition and understanding of knowledge, ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for generation of new knowledge, and understanding of applicable techniques for research.
Different stakeholders have difference motivation and agenda towards doctoral degree programme. These stakeholders are the students, institutions and sponsors. Students pursue doctoral degree may resulted from the desire to contribute to academic community, personal development, career in academic, employment opportunities or increased in salary. Institutions are pressured to produce high quality research project in order to enhance their image (Ismail et al. 2011) and reaction to economic drivers (Lee 2013). Universities discovered that with more doctorate students, it is more likely universities can produce more research output. For sponsor, the drives toward funding doctoral programme are to develop intellectual capital, economic regeneration, and protecting and developing the quality of knowledge (Lee 2013). Further, researchers found that workplaces require a highly skilled workforce with technological skills, applied knowledge and the competency to contribute to the knowledge economy (Walker & Thomson 2010; McCallin & Nayar 2012)
As identified in Section 1.4, the common issues that PhD research students encounter are isolation, time management and supervision (Hockey 1994). Students feel isolated during different stages of their studies, being confronted with administrative and research process. The basis for isolation revolves around three issues: lack of communications, miscommunication, and confusion (Ali & Kohun 2006). To monitor and manage the quality assurance of postgraduate process could be costly in terms of time and confusing among the administrators, supervisors and the students. Further, issue related to supervision is the most repeatedly given reasons for non-completion of PhDs in the UK (Haksever & Manisali 2000).
The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)â€¨The research rating of a department or school is known as its RAE rating. Most departments will publish their RAE score on their web sites or you can see the results of the whole RAE on the RAE web site. The RAE takes place once or twice in a decade and the latest RAE for which results are published is from 2008. The results can be hard to interpret and each university may choose to display them in a different light. Any department or school with 50% or more of their staff rated 4* or 3* is doing very well for itself and studying there will make you look good. It does not however mean that every research group in that department is at the top of their game. Universities have a degree of flexibility in how they are assessed for the RAE. They sometimes group departments together, so if they've got two outstanding life science departments and one not so good one they may submit all three as one unit, hiding the bad department. They can, and do, choose not to submit some of their academics for inclusion in the assessment (sometimes because they are young and haven't had time to build up a publication record or sometimes because they're not very good). The reason they go to so much effort is that a large amount of funding for the five years following the RAE is based on the result.
Social and Intellectual Isolationâ€¨
Doctoral student intellectual isolation is described as having little in common with others in the student department, lack of intellectual stimulation and exchange of ideas with peers or supervisors, not understanding that the transition to being an independent scholar is part and parcel of the doctoral educational process, and distance learning or part-time. Lee (2007) stated that isolation may vary in intensity across disciplines, cohorts, for full or part time students and for those doing distance learning, but the nature of the programme for current traditional PhD students mean that they are still likely to be present in some form. Isolation issues will cause doctoral student's attrition, dampen initial enthusiasm, hinders progress and leads to loss of interest.
Ali & Kohun (2006) claimed in the US that about 50 per cent of students started and end up dropping out which is approximately around 40,000 annually. Terrell et al. (2009) and Lovitts (2005) reported the breakdown causes of the attrition are:
50 per cent for academic reasons, such as failure, lack of integration into the program, isolation, problem with or loss of their advisor, loss of interest or dissatisfaction with the program;
20 per cent for personal reasons such as illness, injury, lack of motivation, family or relationship issues;
20 per cent for financial issues; and
10 per cent for other miscellaneous reasons.
Reported by HEFCE (2010), the PhD completion rates in UK revealed that for full-time home and European Union students starting their programme in 2002-03, a total of 80 per cent and 74 per cent of overseas students qualified within seven years.
For part-time and mode-switch home and European Union students starting their programme in 1999-2000, a total of 53 per cent and 59 per cent of overseas students qualified within 10 years.
However, through analysis of Universities, some of them fall short in delivering the results (The Times, 2010). Liverpool John Moores' University came worst for full-time home and European Union students for the class of 2001-02, only 34 per cent of whom qualified within seven years and just 10 per cent of full-time overseas students recruited that year qualified. Table 1 Best Performer Universities and Table 1 Worst Performer Universities show the best and worst performers for doctoral qualification rates for full-time home and European Union students qualifying within seven years (starting in 2002-03).
Table 1 Best Performer Universities
Best Performers Universities
Imperial College London
University of Bristol
University of Nottingham
University of Cambridge
University of Liverpool
University of York
Source: The Times (2010)
Table 1 Worst Performer Universities
Worst Performers Universities
University of Bedfordshire
University of Derby
Liverpool John Moores University
Manchester Metropolitan University
University of Salford
Source: The Times (2010)
The qualification rates are associated with: mode of study (full-time or part-time), domicile, subject, source of student funding, age, qualification on entry and ethnicity (HEFCE, 2010).
Having a Code of Practice for assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education with the aims to provide guidance on maintaining the quality and standards for universities and colleges (QAA, 2010), does not seem to achieve its plan for the worst performer universities.
A recent research degree qualification rates were published by HEFCE (2012) that presents projected rates of qualification for students on postgraduate research degree. The report indicates around two third of the 10,140 students who started research degrees in English higher education institutions in 2009-10 are projected to qualify within seven years, and around three-quarters will qualify over a longer period. Table 1 Qualified with research degree shows percentage of students qualified with research degree award within 7 years or above for 2009-10 cohorts.
Table 1 Qualified with research degree
Full-time research degree
Qualified with research degree award (%)
Year of study 1
Year of study 2
Year of study 3
Year of study 4
Year of study 5
Year of study 6
Year of study 7 or above
Source: HEFCE (2012)
Most universities and sponsors offer their PhD candidates for three years full-time. However, the table above show only 2.2% qualifies in the third year with research degree award. Majority of students with 42.3% qualifies in the fifth year of their study thus burdening students with financial issues and time. Allocation of research funding from funding council adopted policy to penalise non submission after 4 yearsâ€¦â€¦.
Terrell et al. (2009) developed a survey instrument on Doctoral Student Connectedness Scale, which is designed to identify students at risk of dropout. The findings claimed that students experience less then desirable levels of connectedness between each other and faculty members. As a result, there was a need for interventions initiated by administrators, faculty, and students. Examples given by the authors, include: providing face-to-face and online workshops that focus on various aspects of the dissertation, assigning faculty mentors or advisors in the PhD program, establishing faculty and student cohorts based on specific interests and research agendas, and using online communication tools to facilitate student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction. Coupled with these activities, student-led initiatives, such as the development of community of practice that are supported by administration and faculty, are also recommended for online doctoral students.
A framework for dealing with social isolation at doctoral programs was introduced by Ali and Kohun (2006) in order to minimize doctoral attrition. The authors applied Beeler's model (Beeler, 1991 cited by Ali and Kohun, 2006) to reflect the adjustment of doctoral students to academic life, it is usually a process that takes conscious and unconscious transformation that is summarised as Table 1 Beeler's model to reflect the adjustment of doctoral students to academic life..
Table 1 Beeler's model to reflect the adjustment of doctoral students to academic life.
Causes of Isolation
Remedies of Social Isolation
Preadmission to enrolment
Lack of social integration
Insufficient administrative support
Formal social and introduction events
Difference with other academic programmes
New social adjustment
Second year through candidacy
Lack of preparedness for comprehensive exam
Lack of guide to select research topic
Lack of guide to select an advisor
Topic Presentation/ feedback
Structure guide for advisor selection
Unstructured dissertation phase
Structure for the dissertation stages
Note: This model is based on US doctoral programme stages. The term advisor is equivalent to supervisor in the UK.
Most doctoral programmes do not require students to take formal classes or lectures. Instead, doctoral students start directly with the research and the dissertation stage.
Existing customised information systems and powerful web social network systems have been developed to assist researchers to communicate, collaborate, network and share information. One of these platforms is known as Virtual Research Environment (VRE). This system helps researchers manage research complexity by providing an infrastructure specifically designed to support the activities carried out within research teams, on both small and large scales (Allan et al. 2004). It is designed to support researchers in general but not specifically designed to support PhD research process.
The completion of a PhD is a long and strenuous process that takes at least three years. Hockey (1994) claimed that the first year is perhaps the most crucial period, where students will encounter and experience intellectual and social processes at their point of maximum novelty, and in turn, possible difficulty.
More than two-thirds of research students agree that they were confident about completing on schedule, and that proportion has increased slightly each year (The Higher Education Academy, 2009).
An issue relating to this topic is that doctoral students were unable to be more specific on their tasks, and quickly discover that before they can proceed, several preliminary steps is needed to be taken, vague overall plans, goals very fuzzy, unstructured approach to the project (Phillips and Pugh, 2000).
The impact of this issue leads to:
Greater dependence on the supervisor for feedback concerning student progress;
Evaluating own work would also be more difficult;
Cannot manage to complete the projected work in the time assigned; and
Redefinition of project goal.
Some solutions have been suggested by Phillips and Pugh (2000) through constructing the research programme in conjunction with the supervisor, to develop an overall time plan of the research stages, and to use the time plan to monitor progress and thus motivate the student to continue on course. This time plan will make it easier to redefine short-term goals, and making use of project management application software will enable the researcher to track and manage their research programme.
Whalley (2011) presented a PhD thesis completion risk chart (Figure 1 PhD student progression model (adapted from Whalley, 2011)) that categorised four groups of PhD students: winners, strugglers, surprises, and losers. The winners group complete their thesis within 3 years while the strugglers group complete it within 4 years. For the surprises group they complete it within 5 years and the losers never complete their thesis.
PhD Progression Model 1.tif
Figure 1 PhD student progression model (adapted from Whalley, 2011)
A report that provides national results from the Postgraduate Experience Surveys (PRES) represent the views of postgraduate researches for targeting, designing and evaluating work in order to enhance learning experience of postgraduate students (Hodsdon & Buckley 2011). PRES 2011 was the fourth cycle of the survey conducted, in which, previous survey was ran in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The national response rate was 32% with 31,202 students completing the survey from 102 UK institutions.
PRES 2011 results shows that the overall satisfaction levels for UK research students are increasingly positive, 86% of respondents stating the overall experience of their programme met or exceed their expectation compared with 81% in 2007, 83% in 2008 and 84% in 2009. Supervision scale had the strongest impact on how research students rated their overall experience, followed by the Intellectual Climate scale, and the Professional Development and Career scale. However, it was found that a fifth of the respondents thought supervision did not meet expectations that concerned guidance with literature searches.
Ives and Rowley (2005) indicated that communications and positive relationship between supervisor and student are the key for successful PhD awards. The most repeatedly given reasons for non-completion of PhDs in the UK over a number of studies were problems associated with supervision (Bourke et al. 2004; Haksever & Manisali 2000)
Positive interpersonal relationships were associated with good progress and student satisfaction. As reported by Denicolo (2004), positive attributes of supervisors amongst others are:
Confidence in the student;
Mainhard et al. (2009) added that the supervisor should have listening skills, encourage argument and debate, provide continuous feedback and support, enthusiastic, and show warmth and understanding. Seagram et al. (1998) showed that important positive characteristics of supervisors according to their doctoral students were professionalism, and supportive behaviour.
On negative interpersonal relationship, Mainhard et al. (2009) reported that they might emerge through:
Tension existing between the supportive helping role of the supervisor and the requirements of the role to warrant dissertation quality;
Supervisory style that is apt for a particular student can be at odds with the preferred style of the supervisor, or the style either he or she is competent to provide; and
Unaware of the development of the supervisory relationship, both at the part of the supervisor and the student, this may contribute a major threat for the development of supervisory path into a productive direction.
Mainhard et al. (2009) proposed QSDI (questionnaire on supervisor-doctoral student interaction) as a reliable instrument to gather data about doctoral students' perceptions of their supervisor's interpersonal style. And it can also help to evaluate interventions to improve supervisory relationships. This instrument maps the relationship between a doctoral student and his or her supervisor from the perspective of the student. The authors further suggested future research to complement this view with supervisor's perception of the student style.
Parry and Hayden (1994 cited by Kiley 2003) proposed thirteen principles for successful higher degree by research supervision as follows:
Recruiting and selecting students;
Selecting the topic;
Giving advice on how to do research;
Meeting with student;
Helping students to write;
Maintaining a working relationship;
Introducing students to scholarly networks;
Ensuring acceptability of the thesis;
Selecting examiners; and
Providing career support.
Academic viewpoints on 'What makes a good research student's, were discussed by three academics: Professor Paul Chung, Doctor Danish J Malik, and Professor John Arnold (Gilman 2010). They outline the qualities of ideal research students, challenges and danger signs for new PhD students.
Qualities of ideal research student included:
Flexible with their thoughts and planning;
Tolerance for ambiguity;
Hard working and open-minded to suggestions;
Ability to evaluate existing work and coming out with their own ideas;
Self-reliant and well organised;
Competent research skills; and
Seek continuous training and active feedback from supervisors and others.
Challenges for new PhD students included:
A literature review can be a daunting task in order to identify gaps in the literature;
Subject interest may wear off after a period of time. In order to overcome this concern, students need to be resilient and remember their motives for doing PhD studies, making necessary efforts to get involved in the academic community; and
Experiencing failure, loneliness, and boredom. Students need to balance their work with other social activities.
Danger signs for PhD students included:
Students that seek certainty from day one;
Not focused on their ideas;
Rely on their supervisor for ideas;
Do not progress with their research work; and
Have a hard time generating relevant links and ideas.
Model of Supervision
Systems Support for Research Process
This section reviews the technological tools that are used to support research process and activities. Madadnia et al. (2001) proposed a collaborative partnership approach to Virtual Research Supervision. The system facilitates a shared understanding of a project, task and process between supervisors and students. While regular feedback from peers and supervisors to facilitate through shared online forum, whereby students can see the feedback given to others and participate in the process.
De Rezende et al. (2006) developed a workflow system for supporting student-supervisor Scientific Collaboration. It was designed to support knowledge management and collaboration. Their work is limited towards supporting thesis development application. It does not cater for wider research process. Merwe et al. (2005) proposed a generic educational model structure for HEI. However, the proposed model is too generic to support the diversities of research process and activities.
Postgraduate Research Process Main Elements (Activities)
In order to support the whole postgraduate research process, this Thesis undertook the initial element (activities) that is collaboration. The collaboration element entails students to communicate easily with peers, supervisors and the rest of research communities. This will enhance intellectual stimulation and exchange of ideas with peers or supervisors.
The second element of this study is dealing with administration. This element performs administrative support to monitor and manage the quality assurance of PhD process that can be costly in terms of time and confusing among the administrators, supervisors, and the students.
It is essential to set the third elements of this study that is progression. Progression element advices student's in their research progress. It provides a clear research plan between students-supervisors expectation and deliverables and completion risk issues.
And the fourth element of this study is the supervision. The supervision element enables interaction through information and document sharing activities in the student-supervisor relationship that arises during the development of a PhD process. And it provides support in conducting specific research activities.
Summary and conclusion
This chapter concludes that the common issues that PhD research students' encounters are isolation, time management, and supervision. These issues are of concern to sponsors, government, research councils, universities and the PhD students. Isolation causes doctoral student attrition, dampens initial enthusiasm, hinders progress and leads to loss of interest. The most repeatedly given reasons for non-completion of PhDs in the UK over a number of studies were problems associated with supervision.
The findings of PhD students' issues and challenges proposed that workflow and service tools could support PhD process. A holistic approach to support PhD process is important to ensure the PhD students' receive positive experience and quality assurance during their PhD studies. There are four elements (activities) identified to support postgraduate research process: Collaboration, Supervision, Progression, and Administration. These elements are the main workflow activities to support the postgraduate research process. These elements also help in designing the case evaluation study of this Thesis.
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