The doctoral experience: a bit of a curate’s egg

Year: 2013

Author: Boon, Helen

Type of paper: Refereed paper

Established models of doctoral education in Australia are generally based on an apprenticeship model, where doctoral students learn from their supervisors. However, these are slowly being reconsidered in light of low completion rates by higher degree students and international doctoral education changes.
The purpose of this study was to investigate doctoral students’ perceptions of their candidature with an aim to explore their views in depth. Findings would then be used to inform a university doctoral program delivery in order to improve the quality of the doctoral training.
Focus group interviews explored 123 doctoral students’ views and perceptions, representing a 17.9% of the doctoral students enrolled at a university.  Most university schools were represented in the study.
Three research questions constituted the interview schedule protocol:
·         What are some of the positives of your experience since you enrolled in the doctoral program?
·         What are some of the negatives of your experience since you enrolled in the doctoral program?
·         What are some of your recommendations for the future?
The lead researcher conducted all interviews. Content analysis was employed to analyse interview transcripts.  Generated themes arising from each research question and the frequency with which such themes were cited were categorised by their incidence across the 18 schools represented in the study and across the whole sample of students to assess their prevalence.
Key themes most often generated related to:
·         Generic skill courses;
·         Personal office space;
·         Supervision;
·         Social and academic/research culture; and
·         Communications.
Results have implications for the future of doctoral education in Australia in an increasingly globalised competitive education sector. They highlight that the PhD program would be best delivered by a range of people, in addition to the supervisor.  The Graduate Research School and administration staff of each school have pivotal roles to play in the delivery and quality of the program.  Administrative organisation, physical working space allocation, available resources, training courses and communications were all critical in supporting and enhancing the doctoral experience.

Another factor that seriously impacted upon a positive student doctoral experience was isolation from other students, which lead to a lonely, even unproductive, candidature and general disengagement.   Schools need to recognise this need for inclusion, particularly in the social sciences and humanities which have no laboratory contingencies. One way to do this is to provide suitable office arrangements for students, and regular seminars to promote interaction and discussion within and across schools/faculties.