A 2003 report from CAGS made a dozen
recommendations for PhD reform. Few
of the recommendations have been put
those in the natural and health sciences collaborate on research projects
with colleagues and supervisors. Research shows that students who work
on teams are less likely to abandon their studies.
A publishing record also begets success, according to a study by Université de Montréal researcher Vincent Larivière, published last year
in the journal Scientometrics. Dr. Larivière, an assistant professor in the
university’s school of library and information science, found that of the
30,000 students who entered PhD studies in Quebec between 2000 and
2007, those who published papers were more likely to graduate.
“If you are integrated into research you’ll finish faster and you’ll finish, period,” says Dr. Larivière. Students in the medical and natural sciences are better positioned for success, he observes, since they are more
likely to collaborate on research projects and publish their results.
Funding is also an issue. In a related study soon to be published in
the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Dr. Larivière found that students
who received scholarship funding from federal and provincial research
councils were more likely to publish and to graduate. An interesting finding was that the amount of money they received had no impact on the
amount they published.
“The big difference,” he concludes, “was not between having $20,000
or $35,000 but … between having something and having nothing. That,
I think, goes against the grain of everything the federal government is
doing right now, which is to create super-scholarships.” Instead of doling
out large sums to a few elite students, the granting councils, he suggests,
should spread the funds out.
And while the outlook for students in the social sciences and humanities is problematic, “everything is not necessarily rosy in the lab-based
culture either,” argues Brent Herbert-Copley, SSHRC vice-president, research capacity. PhD candidates in the natural and health sciences may
complete their studies faster, but they also are more likely to linger in
postdoctoral positions, he points out. The close working relationship between students and supervisors in these disciplines is beneficial in many
ways but can hinder students’ progress, since there is little incentive for
supervisors to see them move on to become independent researchers.
“I am one of those people who strongly believes that students tend
to take as long as their advisers want them to,” says Jay Doering, dean of
graduate studies at the University of Manitoba and past president of the
Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. He speaks partly from experience, but experience of a different kind: Dr. Doering was fast-tracked from
his bachelor degree into a PhD program and then completed his doctorate
in four years. The main reason, he says, is because his adviser encouraged it.
However, many professors labour under the impression that it takes
years and years to complete a PhD. “Part of the problem, I think, is that
a large part of the academy still believes they are creating Mini-Me’s or
clones,” says Dr. Doering. “The only way I see it changing is to get a buy-
in from the vast majority of the academy that this is a problem.”
In a 2003 report, CAGS made a dozen recommendations for PhD
reform. These included recommendations to collect and disseminate data
on graduation rates and completion times, to encourage students to work
in research teams and to publish more, to consider direct admission into
PhD programs, and to provide more guidance to professors on supervi-
sion practices. Few of the recommendations have been put into effect.
But change is coming, albeit slowly. Frank Elgar, associate professor
at McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and department of psychiatry who published a study on PhD completion while he
was doctoral student at Dalhousie University, says universities are experimenting with ways to redesign programs, restructure comprehensive
exams, limit coursework and other efforts to get students through faster.
His 2003 report, which drew attention to lengthening completion times,
was highly critical of universities for turning a blind eye to the problem.
Now a supervisor himself, Dr. Elgar says getting the right match between student and adviser is crucial. But doctoral students need to be
“very driven” and to have a career plan in place at the start of their studies, he adds. Those who enrol for lack of better options or to delay entry
into a poor job market are the ones who tend to languish.
For their part, graduate students are wary of speaking out about their
personal experiences for fear that what they say could jeopardize their
academic success. Yet a lack of funding is top of mind for many of them.
Most doctoral candidates receive funding, either through their institution
in the form of teaching and research assistantships and other stipends,
or through scholarships from the federal tri-council agencies and other
government programs. In the sciences, many also receive support through
faculty research grants. But assistance is usually limited, and once it
runs out students may have to find outside work, which can impede
Poor supervision is also a common and pressing issue, say students.
Supervisors can take months before providing feedback on completed
work. “They don’t keep up with you,” says one student who asked not
to be named, noting that her own supervisor went on sabbatical for a
year, during which time she received no response. Personality conflicts
between students and supervisors can also derail things. Some students
have complained about outright abuse and exploitation.