Of the multifarious factors affecting doctoral students´ experience of their studies, one of the most critical is how they relate to their supervisors. This complex, vulnerable relationship is the springboard for this study. Although it focuses on the student perspective, the study considers both parties´ views and perceptions of research supervision in a broad sense.
Doctoral students and supervisors at Umeå University were studied, and the data were collected in two ways:
- A questionnaire sent to 900 doctoral students at various faculties who, during autumn term 2000, were registered for study activity of at least 10% (response rate: 61%).
- Interviews with four research supervisors and four doctoral students at various faculties.
Salient observations during the project included how complex the supervision relationship is, and how different its workings can be. In the questionnaire responses and interviews alike, I was told of relationships that ranged from heaven to hell, with components of both sometimes blended for a single individual. Summing up, despite many recent initiatives seeking to homogenise the parameters of doctoral studies and research supervision, this study may be said to show that working conditions are still highly heterogeneous. Marked differences persist among faculties, departments and individuals alike.
In general, the survey shows that a large majority of the doctoral students perceived the actual research work as interesting, and also felt that their principal supervisors showed great interest in their research. Nonetheless, more than one in four of the female and one in five of the male students thought that with hindsight they would hardly, or definitely not, have embarked on their doctoral studies.
Various problems that arose during the studies have been identified. Problems in the supervision relationship were among the prevalent reasons why 67% of the women and 56% of the men had seriously considered giving up their studies at one time or another. Problems of this kind were particularly emphasised by the female doctoral students. Overall, they perceived problems involving being singled out for unfair treatment, for example, more than the male students. They were also more critical of ways in which conflicts were resolved (or not resolved) at their own departments. Both the doctoral students and the supervisors experienced stress in completing the thesis, and the supervisors interviewed wondered how much they should intervene to slow down or speed up the work.
Implementing doctoral studies is a long-term, demanding process, and doctoral students and supervisors alike need support in their work from time to time. For a doctoral student, having a well-functioning relationship with the supervisor is particularly important in this context. At Umeå University, a compulsory supervisors´ course in research supervision has been introduced. At times, various departments also have some form of staff cooperation for supervisors. Research supervision is, however, characterised by a good deal of prestige and some supervisors in this study perceived discussing certain issues as taboo even in this forum. Nonetheless, the pleasure of supervising emerged in the supervisor interviews, and research supervision was not infrequently described in such terms as ‘exciting´, ‘rewarding´ and ‘instructive´.