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Doctoral education in the spotlight

14 Jun 2018 | In early June, I set off for Slovenia with a degree of trepidation. I may be married to an academic but I most certainly am not one myself. So you can understand why I felt somewhat nervous on my flight to Slovenia where I had been invited to present at the European University Association Council of Doctoral Education (EUACDE) annual meeting.

In early June, I set off for Slovenia with a degree of trepidation. I may be married to an academic but I most certainly am not one myself.  So you can understand why I felt somewhat nervous on my flight to Slovenia where I had been invited to present at the European University Association Council of Doctoral Education (EUACDE) annual meeting. I was definitely in the minority among conference delegates in not having ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ in my title.

I travelled to Ljubljana, as one of 250 delegates from 35 countries, to present on the findings of Advance HE’s annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). With just shy of 58,000 UK-based doctoral candidates from 117 higher education institutions participating in the survey last year, the sample is broadly representative of the overall UK postgraduate researcher population. 

PRES: a voice for candidates, a microscope for universities

As far as we can ascertain, there is nothing like it on this scale elsewhere in Europe. And with doctoral education experiencing significant challenges and changes in recent times, if it is to continue to thrive, we must keep listening to the voice of doctoral candidates - and react accordingly. Despite the understandable focus on undergraduate education, doctoral education is arguably as important to the HE system. There are some 900,000 doctoral candidates across Europe, all contributing to the central mission of their universities and indeed to the development of the knowledge society itself.

The good news from PRES 2017 is that doctoral candidates are generally positive about their experiences. Over the past three survey cycles, the average scores across the core survey areas show that satisfaction has remained relatively consistent.  However, upon closer examination of certain survey scales that appear to be reporting positive results, there are some critical points that need to be addressed. These include variances in culture and practices between different subject areas and in satisfaction of respondents according to their stated permanent residency and this is what I chose to focus my talk on.

Health and wellbeing of doctoral candidates

For my presentation I chose to look at diversity of experience across subject clusters and permanent residency. Equally, I could have looked at diversity of experience across other survey scales or candidate demographics.

One area in particular that will come under increasing scrutiny is the health and wellbeing of doctoral candidates.  A new personal outlook section was introduced to the PRES in 2017 and with much discussion and debate on day one of the conference on the topic of doctoral candidate wellbeing, not to mention that of their supervisors, I fully expect this theme to take centre stage. 

A privilege and a pleasure to attend

So ultimately how did the conference go?  The conference was expertly coordinated by the EUA-CDE and Advance HE looks forward to collaborating further with this influential association and its members (many of whom are existing Advance HE subscribers) throughout 2018 and beyond. Personally, there was no need to be nervous; everyone I met was kind, courteous, knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about doctoral education. We all shared a burning desire to make it the best it can be - it’s too important to be left to chance. Candidates deserve, we all deserve the best possible academic experience; an equitable experience…for their future, our future, for the benefit of all society.

Exploring the data behind the headlines

The survey results have clear implications for policymakers, academic leaders, practitioners and doctoral candidates across the international HE sector. While we publish an annual report, summarising the aggregated findings and identifying key points and recommendations, what is clear is that the survey results merit further research and can be explored in even greater depth.

The general data for 2017 is available for all to review while each institutional participant also receives their own data as well as benchmarking reports enabling them to fully interrogate their own strengths and weaknesses in order to enhance the academic experience.  If your institution participated in PRES 2018, your own data will now be available at the beginning of July 2018. Contact us to find out more

You can find my presentation and all other conference presentations here.

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