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Results of an online survey on doctoral supervision

To ask the most relevant questions in the interviews and thus make them valuable from an early career perspective we asked doctoral students about their views and questions concerning doctoral supervision in 2023. In an open and anonymous online survey 22 doctoral students mostly associated with the MLU shared their thoughts and provided the basis for our four interviews.

Open Questions

We asked two open questions in the only survey. The first one What would you like to know about the expectations and perspective of a supervisor? invited to contribute questions for the interview. The second question Is there something you would like to add regarding PhD supervision? aimed to capture additional questions and comments that don´t fit into the label “expectations and perspective of a supervisor” and thus helped to broaden the scope beyond the central topic of doctoral supervisor relation.

The contributions ranged from the positive feedback “[t]hat supervisors are kind and understanding“ to questions on supervision methods and meeting frequencies to deeply dissatisfied questions like “Is it expected that the PhD student takes care of everything on his/her own, even if the supervisor promises support?“. To get a better grip of the responses we grouped the contributions by content into seven inductively derived clusters. Most participants were interested in the method of supervision or made comments on possible improvements of supervision with special emphasis on reachability and supportiveness of supervisors. Furthermore, many questions addressed the expectations of supervisors towards their doctoral students. Comments in the categories “communication/personal relation”, “help and support” and “(mis-)perception of relation with PhD students” discussed certain aspects of student’s expectations towards their supervisor and of the (working) relation between supervisor and student. To condensate the doctoral students’ expectations expressed in the responses one could say that a supervisor should have time for his*her doctoral students, be reachable, supportive and don´t burden the doctoral students with too much additional work. 

Background and experience of participants

To be able to classify the survey responses, participants were asked about their subject background, affiliation, and personal experience with their supervisor. Altogether, feedback on the individual working relation with their supervisor covered the whole range of possible answers from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. The same is true for the meeting frequency between doctoral student and supervisor, ranging from ‘several times per week’ to ‘less than once a semester’, see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Meeting frequency with the supervisor, and satisfaction of doctoral students with the working relation with their supervisors, weighted by the number of responses. Size and color of the circles represents the number of responses, either 1 or 3, with small light-blue or large dark-blue circles respectively. In total 22 participants responded.

Figure 1 presents the answers of the respondents on the satisfaction of working relation and the frequency of meetings with their supervisor. The size of spheres represents the number of respondents with the same answer. The x-axis ranges from a high degree of satisfaction with the working relation to high dissatisfaction. The y-axis ranges from several meetings per week, once per week, several times per semester to “less frequent than once a semester”. The participants of the online survey show a higher degree of satisfaction with their working relation when meeting several times (or more) per semester with their supervisor. Furthermore, half of the doctoral students report that they are (very) satisfied with their supervisor-working relation. We observed two gaps in the responses. Neither reported participants that they meet frequently but are unsatisfied with the working relation nor that they are satisfied with the working relation but meet rarely with their supervisor, see Figure 1.

However, considering the low number of observations and the potential self-selection bias no generalizable conclusion can be drawn. Even so an overall satisfaction dominated in those responses, the comments and questions formulated in the two open questions draw a somewhat different picture. A variance of statements supports the impression of dissatisfaction and negative experiences made by the participants or their peers. This divergence can be explained with several participants who reported “satisfaction with the working relation” but skipped the open questions. Moreover, some doctoral students asked not out of their own dissatisfaction but as advocates of dissatisfied peers.   

A change in the meeting frequency or satisfaction with the working relation depending on the duration of the doctorate was not observable. Doctoral students from the first up to the fifth year of their doctorate participated in the survey (Figure 2). Doctoral students in the first year of their doctorate formed the largest group with 6 out of 22 responses.

Figure 2: Distribution of the participants duration of the doctorate to date in absolute numbers. In total 22 doctoral students completed the survey. Most participants (15) were in the first 3 years of their doctorate.

To summarize, a majority of doctoral students appear satisfied with the working relation in their doctorate. Nevertheless, critical, and diverse questions were made in the open sections that we aim to tackle in in the following interviews.

Back to main page “What supervisors want / Was Betreuende erwarten”.

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