Why I love PhD students, by Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell

Published on 15 May 13

I was asked the other day if I had any regrets about taking up the position of President and Vice-Chancellor. The answer was: “Remarkably few.” But one was that I am no longer able to be the lead supervisor for PhD students

One of the greatest joys of my career as an academic has been supervising PhD students- in fact I have been the main supervisor for more than 50 of them. Each one has been very different, with varied skills, approaches, aspirations and worries. I am thankful that all apart from three completed their PhD in the designated time, one had a serious accident, another decided that research was not for her and another experienced a major family tragedy. I am in contact with very many of my former PhD students, who have gone on to varied and very successful careers (only about 10% are in academic careers), and we try to have a reunion about every five years.

PhD students are critically important to our University for many reasons. They are the potential researchers of the future, are major contributors to our current research and contribute to many aspects of our teaching and supervision. PhD students are the life blood of a research group, but can also present significant challenges and place major responsibility on their supervisor.

My first PhD student (as a primary rather than secondary supervisor) started in 1987, just as I moved to Manchester. She was soon joined by others, and before I knew it, I had six students; quite a challenge for a relatively junior member of staff and actually very bad planning on my part.

I later learnt to take PhD students only when I had the time to supervise them, or had other academic staff or post-docs to share in the day-to-day supervision, which, in science in particular, is essential.

Back then there were no advisors, no additional training, no checks on progress or support for students who were struggling. Now, of course, all of these are in place. Nowadays, some staff complain about the additional requirements on PhD students and their supervisors, including the courses that they have to attend and regular checks on progress. I see this training as vital, because it means that students receive broader training which is relevant to their likely careers and have support from a wider range of people, rather than all of the responsibility falling onto the supervisor.

I am very aware though, that we cannot make training too generic and it must be seen as relevant to each student and their supervisor. Ensuring good progress through a PhD is essential, but we have to make sure that our monitoring systems are simple and quick.

I also welcome our system whereby each PhD student has an advisor or a second supervisor, or in some areas, a supervisory team. This takes a huge burden off supervisors and provides diversity of expertise. I wish I had benefited from this level of support back in 1987 when I had six PhD students!

Things have certainly improved in terms of support, but have also become more complicated and regulated in every area of our academic lives. As a PhD student myself (very many years ago), I barely considered issues like conflicts of interest; ownership of research and intellectual property; authorship of publications; PhD completion dates; collaboration with industry (part of my PhD was in industry); let alone the more controversial areas of research or any aspects of the ‘politics’ of research and funding.

But I was very lucky. I had a fantastic supervisor who, like many academics at that time, had rather limited pressures on his time, so could always find time to chat. He had a passion for all of the wide ranging issues in science. He persuaded me to read books well outside the area of my PhD, to consider public communication of science, to broaden my experience in teaching and to take a course in the philosophy of science.

Fast forward to 2013, and we see a very different picture, of academics balancing numerous pressures and challenges, yet still anxious to provide the very best inspiration, training and leadership for their PhD students. We all want our students to graduate on time, with great publications and a glittering career ahead of them. Yet it doesn’t always work out that way.

The best advice on PhD supervision that I ever received was that completion of a PhD begins on the day the student starts; that every result matter seven if it wasn’t what was expected; to look for the unexpected and to stretch every PhD student as much as they can manage. But there is no formula for successful PhD supervision - each student is unique - which is part of the real pleasure!

We have an aspiration in our University to increase the number of PhD students. This is an important goal but also a real challenge - not because of lack of excellent applicants (applications are up by over 30% this year), but because of limited funding. External funding for PhD students seems to be ever decreasing. We are committing our own funds, for example through our ‘President’s PhD Scholarships’. This scheme is just in its first year, but it already looks to be very successful with more than 100 award holders so far. Recruitment of the next cohort is now underway with some truly outstanding applications.

Most funding bodies are now moving towards Doctoral Training Accounts, which means that a block grant is provided for us to decide how we spend it. The flexibility here is good, but it raises many challenging questions, such as how many students do we recruit and for how long? For example, we could accept more students for three years or fewer students for four years; how do we allocate student funding and how do we select the best students for the best projects and the best supervisors?

I hope we will increase the number of PhD students in the University, but the quality of our students, the supervision they receive and the research they conduct is so much more important than quantity. I am reminded - that it’s time for another reunion.

Professor Nancy Rothwell

President and Vice-Chancellor

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