For many people this is the first thing they think of when it comes to an awesome PhD Program. Questions like: What does the research involve? What is the research question being asked or answered? all arise. However, it is important to think beyond this to things such as the capacity or the capability of the student to undertake the work, and the program’s ability to support them. Are the resources and expertise available?
Secondly, does the research fit into the wider program of work being undertaken in the group, unit, organisation, institute etc.? Does the centre have a research plan or strategy, and can the student and supervisor identify where the proposed PhD project fits into that plan or strategy?
However, most important of all is the student’s connectedness to their project. Again, going back to student failure, the second most common reason for discontinuing a PhD is lack of enthusiasm for the work1. Three to five years2 is a long time to stick with one project. Of course, it is possible to disconnect from the project overtime, but if it was not the student’s choice in the first place they are starting out in a worse position.
When are PhD students more
likely to quit? When they loose
enthusiasm for their research
There is a raft of research relating to work satisfaction and workplace retention – which identifies factors such as alignment of purpose, autonomy in role, and progress towards mastery as necessary for on-going engagement3. These factors probably also relate to PhD students. This research suggests engagement with the work you are doing and its alignment with your personal purpose/goals and those of the organisation are large factors in long-term work satisfaction. People also need a sense of growth and development in their work. Thus, a PhD project needs to have elements that allow the student to start immediately but grow as the student gains experience and expertise.
Of course, this does not take into account what the aims of the PhD program might be. It goes without saying the focus is research training – but to what end? Is the program intended to create researchers, destined for an academic career? Or is the focus industry collaboration, bridging academic and commercial research? Or are graduates encouraged to seek careers outside research altogether?
In each case the additional support you might provide would be different. In the first case, grant and peer review publication might be the focus. In the second case, collaboration and negotiation might be key tasks. And in the final scenario, it might be networking and understanding evidence. These same factors could even influence how supervisors are allocated. Data shows supervisors who are good academics more likely produce good academics. Conversely those who are good industry collaborators are more likely to produce good industry collaborators. Thus, as a PhD Program Director you might encourage all supervisors to have industry collaborations; or only support students whose supervisors have industry collaborations.
Happy creating the next generation of researchers and critical thinkers!
1Thesis Whisperer, Why do people quit their PhD? And references therein, https://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/03/26/why-do-people-quit-the-phd/, accessed 11 July 2018
2Three years = preferred timing for a PhD; 5 years = upper end of the average time for a PhD in Australia
3Radio National, Best Practice – Motivation: Is Money Enough?, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bestpractice/motivation_-dan-pink/9384358, accessed 12 July 2018