What’s important in a ‘world-class’ doctoral researcher experience?


UK universities are successful and responsive within the global doctoral research market, delivering “world-class research student experience” according to a new report from the UK Higher Education International Unit.[1] Will Archer’s report is based principally on results from around 9000 international doctoral researchers in the UK who took part in the 2014/15 International Student Barometer (ISB) research survey. 

ISB results include very high satisfaction ratings (over 90%) in relation to having an expert supervisor, academic support and getting feedback on performance, as well as perceived safety on campus and the university environment. They were especially high in relation to graduate schools. Although a high percentage of those who interacted with a careers service were satisfied, ratings were somewhat lower in relation to obtaining careers advice more generally, and also with opportunities to teach and to obtain work experience. Issues where satisfaction was lowest were around costs of living, accommodation, opportunities to supplement income and for university financial support (in the range 58%-65% satisfied). Overall, about 90% were satisfied with their experience and 85% would recommend a similar experience to others.

Over the past seven years these overall figures have been very consistent, with a very slight improvement in terms of overall satisfaction and an increase from 80 to 85% in those who would recommend their experience to others. The overall figures were also very slightly higher than for those who studied in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, and few detailed satisfaction figures for the UK were lower than for these competitor nations. However, satisfaction levels with opportunities to teach and to earn money, and with financial support, were somewhat lower for those in the UK. Viewed over time, satisfaction figures generally were rising across the board, so improvements to ratings in the UK will continue to be needed to maintain its leading international position in this market.

Some more detailed aspects are worthy of note. The ISB uses a derived measure of what students think is most important in terms of their experience. From that analysis, the most critical aspects that emerge which drive recommendation of their experience are learning- or support-related rather than environmental, and three of the top five are directly career-related: perceived employability, careers advice and work experience. These would all seem to relate closely to researcher development opportunities and experiences.

These key issues apparently differ from what the ISB identifies as the most important factors that the researchers considered when they chose where to study their doctorate, which were principally perceptions around research quality and university or academic reputation. However, it is notable that the ISB does not ask about prior perceptions in relation to potential employability, researcher training or careers support – this seems a bit of an omission and something we should campaign to rectify. It could also mean that universities would do well to provide better evidence of career outcomes after doctoral research study, when they are promoting research opportunities to prospective doctoral researchers.

[1] International Postgraduate Research Students: The UK’s Competitive Advantage. UK HE International Unit, 2016  http://www.international.ac.uk/media/3722398/International-Postgraduate-Research-Students-The-UK-s-Competitive-Advantage.pdf