The dire situation of mental health in the academy has been discussed extensively and studies show that PhD students are faring particularly poorly – in a paper published in Research Policy, Katia Levecque et al. argue that: ‘one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress’ whilst ‘one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.’ The authors also claim that: ‘the prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees’ as well as higher education students. Whilst the issue is no longer being ignored, universities are urged to take more action to address the problem. At the same time, providing avenues for feedback and taking PhD students’ concerns and opinions seriously is central if the academy is to tackle this crisis. But are there enough robust feedback mechanisms for PhD students? Moreover, are the PhD students asked to provide feedback on one of the crucial elements of the process, the PhD supervision? And if not, how can the universities and PhD supervisors know what can be improved if they don’t ask the question of what they are getting wrong when it comes to supporting PhD students? It is these questions I engage with in this post.
Over the last week all teachers at the LSE100 course on which I am currently teaching could be seen walking around with big white envelopes containing printed Teaching Quality Assurance and Review Office’s (TQARO) teaching surveys. These anonymous surveys were distributed diligently in classes to all present students and were then returned in sealed envelopes to the course office by student volunteers, presumably to ensure there is no interference with the results by the teachers. At LSE we certainly take students’ opinions seriously; in my two years of working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and then as a Class Teacher my teaching has been assessed through TQARO surveys eight times in total. The logic behind this is clear – we want to know what our students think not only of the courses we teach them, but also of the way in which we do so. The surveys asking students to evaluate our teaching, whilst not entirely unproblematic (consider the prevailing gender bias in how students assess their university lecturers), are an attempt to give the students a possibility to evaluate amongst other things how well we prepare, how engaging our classes are and whether our feedback is seen as helpful. Whilst there is no doubt that individually and institutionally we are concerned with the experiences of our undergraduate and master students – the National Student Survey stands as another case in support – when it comes to the PhD students the picture becomes much less clear.
My own experience has been quite striking, in the four years of my PhD I cannot recall a single instance when I was asked to give feedback on the programme, the process, or the supervisory support I received. As I pondered the paradoxical imbalance between conducting regular teaching surveys and never being asked to complete one as a PhD student, I started asking my friends and colleagues about their experiences. I also decided to conduct a short survey to see whether the many PhD students that I have in my professional, social and social media circles at LSE and beyond have had a different story to tell. I run the survey (entitled ‘Experience of being asked for feedback as a PhD student’) for five days. It was completed by 30 anonymous respondents who self-identified as ‘PhD students, or people who have completed their PhD in the last 5 years’, the respondents were recruited through my social media and professional networks and were thus predominantly based in social sciences and humanities. Although the size of the sample and the method itself are not ideal, I think that the results are a good enough indicator if not of the scale of the issue, then certainly of its prevalence. The results were unambiguous: an overwhelming majority (73%) of respondents felt they haven’t had enough opportunities to give feedback on their experiences as PhD students.
Whereas the majority (66%) has had an opportunity to give feedback, in 40% of these cases the feedback was not anonymous. In addition, even when there was an opportunity to provide feedback on the overall experience, only 21% of respondents reported having had a chance to give feedback on how satisfied they were with their PhD supervision, 79% were simply never asked about this aspect of their doctoral training.
Supervision is an important element of the PhD experience, when faced with challenges, associated with the process of completing a PhD, doctoral students look to their supervisors for support. Supervision has also been identified as one of the central factors in PhD students’ mental health, and overall satisfaction. It is thus crucial that PhD students have a chance to give feedback on the quality of the supervision they receive and that they can do so anonymously. Ensuring anonymity can be difficult, considering the small number of supervisees each supervisor has and the relatively small number of PhD students. Yet, it should be possible to conduct department-wide surveys without compromising anonymity. Allowing for exit-type interviews, when the unequal power relationship that might influence supervisees’ feedback is less of a factor could also be a solution. So why are universities not interested in finding out what does and what does not work in PhD supervision? Are they afraid to hear the answers?
My own supervisor has been outstanding and this has had a hugely positive impact on my experience of the whole process. It is also through comparison of my own experience to that of many of my friends and colleagues at LSE and elsewhere that I realised that a) that is not always the case and b) the standards of supervision vary much more than what could be explained by different ‘styles’ (even if these can also influence quality of supervision). This in itself constitutes a topic worth exploring at length, a task that is beyond the scope of this post. What is however worth pointing out here is that whilst the lack of opportunities for PhD students to give feedback on their experience might potentially obscure poor quality supervision and institutional shortcomings, it also precludes the possibility of rewarding PhD supervisors who perform their roles professionally, conscientiously and with dedication. The universities should be equally interested in ensuring poor supervisory practices are identified and eliminated, as in holding individuals as examples of good practice, and using their expertise and experience to set the standards. How can this be done when we simply don’t ask these questions?
This is not to claim that simply asking PhD students about their experiences and the quality of supervision they receive, would address all the issues that contribute to the desperately poor levels of mental health amongst this group. To tackle the staggering mental heath crisis amongst PhD students we need a complex approach of which ensuring good quality supervision and adequate institutional support are just one element. Still, providing PhD students with robust avenues to give feedback seems like a good place to start.
This post first appeared on the Contemporary Issues in Teaching & Learning blog on 19 March 2018 and is republished with permission.
Magdalena Mikulak completed her PhD at the Department of Gender Studies. Her doctoral project addresses the question of whether and how politics of sexuality in contemporary, postsocialist Poland are shaped and circumscribed by processes of neoliberalisation, and how differences of class, gender, and location position subjects differently within the landscape of the former. Magdalena is also a guest teacher on the interdisciplinary LSE100 course. When not working, she practices and teaches yoga, and bakes bread.