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  • Doctoral Students Need the Support of Not Only Their Academic Supervisor, but Also of Other Faculty Staff

Doctoral Students Need the Support of Not Only Their Academic Supervisor, but Also of Other Faculty Staff

Doctoral Students Need the Support of Not Only Their Academic Supervisor, but Also of Other Faculty Staff

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To successfully defend a doctoral dissertation, PhD candidates need not only the support of their academic supervisor and close friends and relatives, but also system-wide assistance from the university department or faculty where they study. However, HSE University researchers have found that such support can take different forms and that each has a different effect on how confident a student feels in their ability to successfully defend their dissertation. The results of their study were published in the journal Higher Education Quarterly.

It is during their doctoral studies that young scholars begin focusing on a particular line of research. Studies shows that the support of academic supervisors, fellow researchers, and family members is important to doctoral students as they work on their dissertations. The particular faculty or department in which a young researcher works plays a decisive role in their integration into the scientific community. Such institutional support is important not only for the knowledge it provides, but the traditions, sense of belonging, and community that faculties, laboratories, departments, or schools shape and develop are equally important to doctoral students.

The doctoral system in the Soviet Union, and later in Russia, was traditionally based on the mentoring model. The training of future scholars was mainly limited to communication between postgraduate students and their academic supervisors. PhD students studied little, and their studies were primarily aimed at developing academic skills and competencies. Significant changes took place in the postgraduate system when the federal law On Education in the Russian Federation was adopted in 2013. It received the status of the third stage of higher education and a new goal—to create conditions for the training of highly qualified personnel for research and teaching.

Initially, the transition to this status meant a significant increase in doctoral students’ academic workload. Regulatory changes made in 2021 partially weaken these requirements: organisations now have the right to determine the balance between the academic and research components themselves. Either way, the current model of graduate school also implies that department employees exercise greater control over doctoral students’ progress and, as a result, the students are more involved in research teams.

However, in practice, the main element in preparing PhD students remains individual work with an academic supervisor. To understand how departments support young doctoral students and whether their confidence in their dissertation success depends on it, researchers from the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education at HSE University interviewed 992 Phd students from six Russian universities, or approximately 40% of the doctoral students at these universities. The results showed that, as a general rule, department peers did not provide academic support. In all, 8%–38% of respondents received support from their peers and only 4%–23% received support from department heads. Their more experienced colleagues most often commented on the text of the dissertation or on the doctoral students’ subsequent publications. Most PhD students continued to work only with their academic supervisors.

The researchers identified six types of departmental support for doctoral students, with each determined by who is involved in the work with the PhD student (academic supervisor, department head, or other employees) and which functions their senior colleagues perform. Although it is still typical for the majority (58%) of graduate students to receive support from an academic supervisor alone, among the six types there are also those who received no support whatsoever (11%) and those who received the maximum involvement of the entire staff, including the department head (5%). As further analysis showed, a lack of support meant that doctoral students were less confident they would manage to defend their dissertations. At the same time, when department staff are excessively involved in working with postgrads, their work turns out to be less productive than when only an academic supervisor is actively involved, augmented by informational support from other employees.

As a rule, students count on the support of academic supervisors for more than just assistance with their research. The range of difficulties they face is considerable. These include gaps in research skills, organisational and psychological challenges, and difficulties in career planning. All these questions cannot be solved by the academic supervisor alone. Support from department co-workers can be the solution.

Evgeniy Terentev, Director of the HSE Institute of Education

‘Our study fills in several important gaps. Most of the previous work in this area has focused on the study of support for doctoral students from academic advisors, and not from the wider research community—in particular from the student’s department. The results we obtained show that it is important to consider academic support for PhD students as a more complex, holistic phenomenon. It can combine the work of different people and the types of their support in different ways. This approach raises new questions about the optimal balance between support, control and autonomy for the doctoral student and lays the foundation for new research in this area.’

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