Increase in PhD Students…good thing right?


There has been significant growth in doctoral candidates in the past decade in Ireland and indeed globally. In Ireland alone, data released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for 2016 shows 28,759 people had doctorates at the time of Census which was a rise of 31% since 2011 and of 99.5% on 2006. This, of course, is supported and driven by the National Framework for Doctoral Education. The framework offers guiding principles for doctoral education that include the expectation that doctoral candidates will have deep engagement with a question, problem or hypothesis at the  frontier of knowledge, advancement and will comprise an original contribution to knowledge.  That the doctoral process will significantly increase students’ depth and breadth of knowledge via a high-quality research experience, training (including formalised personal and professional development), in a learning community both national and international where possible. The framework also encourages doctoral submissions comprising work of publishable quality in a variety of formats. The National Framework presupposes a high degree of academic quality and infrastructure, stating that academic quality includes quality supervision and training for supervisors. Admission into doctoral candidature should take into account preparedness of the applicant, the availability of qualified, competent and  accessible supervision and the resources necessary to conduct the research.

Challenging some assumptions

PhD supervision is pedagogical!  It is a teaching relationship!  In universities, current assumptions about postgraduate education include the thinking that because one has a PhD, it automatically means that one can supervise well. If only it were that simple!! The supervisory relationship is high stakes, with success reciprocally invested (often not thought about, or discussed). The challenges inherent in the relationship, especially those related to power and hierarchies are often underestimated. Yet these relationships have a significant bearing on completion, attrition and on doctoral candidates’ mental health and wellbeing.  Supervisors can assume that the way they were supervised is the only way to supervise. Not unlike what Lortie (1975) called the ‘apprenticeship of observation’ when discussing how teachers learn to teach. One size supervision does not fit all. How feedback is given and received can be so personal and subjective and needs to be flexible in order to enhance student learning in a way that protects their mental health and fosters their academic confidence.

Supervisors are struggling too with significantly growing numbers of research students and expectations to supervise in areas that are not quite their expertise due to the resource pressures in meeting the national drive for increased PhD graduates. Supervision ‘on top of’ without due recognition of workload and/or implications is problematic with adverse consequences for students. Not least of which is that being too busy can mean lack of time to build trusting relationships or having the time to respond to students. Lack of trust has been a challenge for students; for example, the doctoral candidates I interviewed explained their challenges with lack of trust:

I don’t know why he doesn’t trust me so much. I wish I just could have somebody who is able to understand what you are doing and trust. That somebody trusts your knowledge that you are bringing to the table that they don’t see you as knowing nothing…I am a normal person and I wish a good supervisor could assume that the student here is trying to achieve something and will really work on this. It would be nice if he could trust my questions you know a saying in my country there is nothing that is a stupid question (Lisa interview ).

This lack of trust was evident in other interview; for example, Celine says of her supervisor:

But she had no trust in anybody and she locked all the presses in the lab so that I could not take stuff out of them when she was gone on holidays and I used to have to go to other people to get stuff like chemicals off them. I was embarrassed to be asking them (Celine interview).

Lack of time also is an issue, and while we feel the pressure of time, as supervisors we need to remember the impact of our lack of availability for students:

When I would request meetings she would say that she hadn’t time to meet…that she had to get lectures prepared and stuff like that. It might be two or three weeks later that I would get a meeting. She obviously didn’t like to know. I would write reports and six or seven months later nothing would be given back (Celine interview).

Some students experience crisis of confidence and fear linked to supervisors: James, described the power of feedback to engender fear in him when he says:

I would get emails and the first response that would come into my head would be to survive.”

Lisa described her fear with regard to her supervisor “I started to be afraid of him…my voice is shaking when I am meeting him so I am actually trying to avoid that at the moment.”  Lisa was afraid to seek help from others:

If I will speak to one of them, the other will know. My supervisor will know and I am so afraid of this because we saw in the beginning there was a single conversation with another supervisor and it was terrible for us…. so we just try to do it and he has got the money, he has the funding so this is a problem. At the moment I am looking for a job my friend actually doesn’t do anything she is staying……she is trying to cope with him…but I am going… (Lisa interview).

 Where to from here:

As supervisors we need to think about our doctoral supervision as a teaching relationship and place doctoral candidate empowerment and wellbeing at the heart of the work. We need to see empowerment processes as “two way” characterised by communication and self-care of academics and students (Gibbon 1990).  We need to acknowledge the importance of reciprocity and work towards real dialogue with or doctoral students. For Bohm (2004) dialogue is about developing shared meaning, where no one person is attempting to push their ideas on another. Curzon- Hobson (2002:266) cites trust as fundamental in higher education.

Trust is a fundamental element in the pursuit of higher learning that leads to a sense of trust that students will embrace an empowering experience of freedom, and the exercise of this freedom is a risk on behalf of students and their teacher. This is the experience and risk of having to face a world beyond absolutes, and yet live in a meaningful way.

This need to be the cornerstone of our interactions as supervisors. We need to take care that the “treadmill” or “throughput pipeline” of larger numbers does not reproduce bullying cultures but rather we seize the opportunity to instil humanizing values in the pursuit of knowledge excellence.

Works Cited:

Bohm, D. (2004) On Dialogue. Oxon: Routledge

Curzon-Hobson, A. (2002) A Pedagogy of Trust in Higher Education. Teaching in Higher Education 7 (3) 265-276

Gibbon, C. (1990)  A Concept Analysis of Empowerment, Journal of Advanced Nursing 16 354-361


Higher Education Authority (2015) National Framework for Doctoral Education

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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