22 SES 11 B, Doctoral Programs and PhD-students
Despite the increasing number of doctoral students in the last decades in Norway, many students do not complete their studies, or complete much later than expected (NSD statistic, 2017). Little information is available on the PhD students’ situation in their doctoral education (Rudd, 1984; Jacobsson, & Gillström, 2006; Casteló, Pardo, Sala-Burbaré & Suné-Soler, 2017). Understanding why some students consider that they do not want to, or cannot, continue with their doctoral studies, is essential to reduce dropout rates as well as improving the overall quality of doctoral programmes.
Our study focuses on factors in the doctoral programmes that influence the students’ progress and completion of their thesis. Our research question is if systemic issues may lead to attrition and mental distress among graduate students. According to the research of Casteló et al. (2017) there is a complex picture that has implications for the design of doctoral programmes, such as the conditions and demands of part-time doctoral studies or the implementation of educational proposals that facilitate students’ academic and personal integration into the scientific community in order to prevent the development of a culture of institutional neglect (Casteló et al. 2017).
The study is inspired by the theory of systemic communication (Bateson, 1973) and eco-systemic theory of practice (Kemmis, Edwards-Groves, Wilkinson & Hardy, 2012).
A strategy for assessing quality in university doctoral programmes is to measure the outcomes of the doctoral education: how many PhD students acquire their doctoral degree?
Another frequently used outcome indicator is the measurement of retention rates. What percentage of those admitted to a doctoral programme continue in the program or finally earn a degree? Retention rates tell us what percentage of doctoral students were satisfied enough to continue their doctoral education, and what percentage received their doctoral degree.
However, the retention rates do not tell us anything about what students experience and learn on their way to completion. Retention rates are one useful outcome but tell us little about what students experience and learn on their way to completion. We need more knowledge about students' attainments along a variety of dimensions such as academic writing, quantitative abilities, problem solving skills and understanding of the research culture.
In Norway, the Ministry of Education and Research has the main responsibility for the PhD education (Thune et al., 2012). Based on the Norwegian laws the universities responsible for PhD programs have their own judicial regulations (Lovdata Foundation, 2018). The main components in the PhD-programmes may be categorized as admission, compulsory training, the PhD dissertation, supervision, evaluation and completion. Compulsory training consists of research seminars, research schools, research groups, mandatory coursework, and research courses (credits). The assessment involves a dissertation (either a monograph or PhD by publication), public trial lecture and finally the public defense.
Supervision is an important part of the doctoral education (Lee & Danby, 2012; Krumsvik, 2016). A high quality research culture should encourages doctoral candidates and their supervisors to pursue challenging questions. The candidates need support in their research work, a learning environment with opportunities for discussing and exploring the pressures on researchers, the standards that are expected, and the wider ramifications on society of the research work. There must be a clear sense that research work is valued and supported as well as properly resourced with appropriate facilities.
From earlier studies (Bjerkholt & Streitlien, 2018) we know there are especially three factors causing distress and attrition. These factors are the quality of the supervision, the lack of collaboration between the PhD-programme and students, and the feeling of exclusion and loneliness.
Our research conducted stems from our interest in the quality of doctoral programmes at our university. We want to get more knowledge about the organization of doctoral programmes and how strength and weaknesses of programmes affect students’ learning processes and completion of their thesis. An important question is if the institution itself is causing problems for the students in their path to a doctoral degree. Criteria we are pursuing in the study are: a) successful student recruitment, b) quality research projects, c) competent supervision, d)creative research environment, e) quality courses and f) decent conditions and equal treatment. The empirical material for the study includes interviews with doctoral students during a period of one year. Our interviews took place in spring and autumn 2018. We invited doctoral students at our campus for an interview. The students were at different stages in their doctoral process, representing different academic disciplines. However, all of them had experiences with supervision, scientific courses in the doctoral programmes and academic writing. According to Patton (1990), our selection of informants is purposive sampling. He states that “qualitative inquiry typically focuses in depth on relatively small samples, even single cases, selected purposefully” (p. 169). We are interviewing the students in pairs. The method of collecting data is a semi-structured interview with a partial pre-planning of the questions and meeting the interviewees face to face. A half-structured interview guide (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015) is used with the intention to ensure that the same general areas of information are collected from each interviewee. This approach provides more focus than the narrative approach, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting the information from the interviewees. As researchers, we can then change our mind about what are the most important questions to focus on as the interview develops. This is especially advantageous in pair or group interviews, where interaction between respondents can spark conversations that the interviewer had not thought would happen in advance. The view of the informants can then be probed further with an unstructured methodology (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015). From the interviews, we get an insight in the doctoral students’ hopes and expectations for the future, besides a description of their present situation in the doctoral process (Cresswell, 2013). The qualitative analyses of data includes descriptions and quotations as a basis for interpreting the meaning production in context.
In our study, we expect a deeper insight into organizational factors that support or distress the PhD students’ doctoral process and their completion of their thesis. Identifying, negative and positive elements in the students’ doctoral studies, will be of crucial interest. Besides, the analysis of interview data might tell us something about what students define as quality in doctoral programmes. These findings might be of interest for faculties at the universities in their strategy for developing the doctoral programmes and increasing the rate of doctoral thesis. It may also influence on what the faculties recognize as quality of doctoral programmes. In addition, we hope to get more knowledge about the organization and structure of different doctoral programmes that might be helpful for the university’s overall work with improving the doctoral education.
Bateson, G. (1973). Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution and epistemology. New York: Ballatine Books. Bjerkholt, E., & Streitlien, Å. (2018). Doctorateness: Doctoral student’s perspectives on completing their education. Paper presented at ECER, 2018, 5-8.09, Bolzano, Italy. Castelló, M., Pardo, M., Sala-Burbaré, A., & Suné-Soler, N. (2017). Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors. Higher Education, Vol.74(6), pp. 1053-1068. Cresswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five approaches.(3rd ed.). London: Sage publications Ltd. Jacobsson, G., & Gillström, P. (2006). International postgraduate student mirror: Catalonia, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden. Högskoleverket, Swedish National Agency for Higher Education. Report 2006:29. Kemmis, S., Edwards-Groves, C., Wilkinson, J., & Hardy, I. (2012). Ecologies of practice. In P. Hager, A. Lee, & A. Reich (Eds.). Learning and practice. Singapore: Springer, pp. 33-49. Krumsvik, R. J. (Eds).(2016). Noen betraktninger om forskningsveiledning ph.d.-nivå. In En doktorgradsutdanning i endring. Et fokus på den artikkelbaserte ph.d.-avhandlingen, pp.125-48. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. Kvale, S., & Brinkmann, S. (2015). Det kvalitative forskningsintervju. (3rd ed.). Oslo: Gyldendal Akademisk. Lovdata Foundation. (2014). National regulations for PhDs in Norway. Retrieved 28.01.2019 https://lovdata.no/dokument/SF/forskrift/2014-10-24-1339 Lee. A. & Danby, S. (Eds.)(2012). Reshaping Doctoral Education. International approaches and pedagogies. London and New York: Routhledge Taylor & Francis Group. NSD (Norsk senter for forskningsdata) (2017). Database for statistikk om høgre utdanning. Retrieved 31.01.2019 https://dbh.nsd.uib.no/statistikk/ Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Rudd, E. (1984). Research in Postgraduate Education. Higher Education Research and Development Vol.3(2), pp. 109-120. Thune, T., Kyvik, S., Sörlin, S., Olsen, T. B., Vabø, A., & Tømte, C. (2012). PhD education in a knowledge society: An evaluation of PhD education in Norway. Oslo: NIFU report 25.
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