The Doctoral Education Experience: Diversity and complexity

Neumann, R. (2003)

Australian Government, Department of Education, Science and Training. Canberra


The main trigger for this study was former Minister Kempís White Paper (1999) Knowledge and Innovation. The project aimed to gain a better understanding of the doctoral education experience. Doctoral students’ educational experiences across four discipline groups and six universities were examined. Over 130 interviews were conducted, two-thirds with students, the remainder with experienced supervisors, departmental and faculty coordinators and deans, postgraduate association presidents and senior managers. 

Consideration was given to type of doctorate (PhD or professional doctorate), mode of enrolment (full or part time), and stage of research (early, middle or late). The intention was to give doctoral students a voice’ and to enhance the understanding of the complexity and diversity of their educational experiences.

The study captures doctoral education at a time of transition. The report documents a wealth of findings from the interviews, supplemented by documentary data. It covers the doctoral education experience from initial recruitment and topic and supervisor selection (chapter 3) through the research and supervision process (chapter 4), skill development and support structures (chapter 5), quality assurance aspects (chapter 6), to the changing nature of the doctorate (chapter 7). These chapters capture the diversity of the doctoral experience and several major findings can be pinpointed.

The large majority of students are positive about their doctoral programs. For some however the experience is at best neutral or mildly disappointing and for a small number fairly traumatic. Twelve per cent of students interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with their supervision experiences and five per cent had serious grievances.

The study shows that doctoral experiences are shaped by a range of contextual considerations:

  • Mode of enrolment makes a difference to the intensity of the experience while different stages of enrolment highlight different aspects of the research process.
  • The type of doctorate does not appear significantly to affect the nature of the doctoral experience.
  • Disciplines shape the doctoral experience and institutional contexts can influence disciplinary perspectives.
  • Financial and resource issues are strongly differentiating factors, both between full and part time students and between students in the hard and soft disciplines.
  • The opportunities for students’ feedback to their institution on their experiences and satisfaction are limited and inconsistent.

Cite this article

Neumann, R. (2003) The Doctoral Education Experience: Diversity and complexity. Australian Government, Department of Education, Science and Training. Canberra

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