Meso-level factors on completion
At the meso level are institutional and departmental factors. Institutional factors include funding mechanisms, recruitment and admission, oversight during candidature, support for candidates, celebrating doctoral research and training of supervisors. Departmental factors include the vibrancy of the research culture, and research education coordinators.
One of the key drivers for timely completions is funding mechanisms within universities. As noted above, there may be government funding that is limited by the number of years. Such policies often flow into more local funding. For example, at the University of Otago, to encourage completion within 3-4 years, the University offers 3-year scholarships. Moreover, an enticement, in the form of a Postgraduate Publishing Bursary, is given to candidates who complete within 4 years.This Bursary provides up to 3 months’ funding at the scholarship rate, and allows candidates to focus on completing publications from their research while their thesis is being examined.
It is crucial for institutions to thoroughly vet prospective doctoral candidates, to ensure they have a strong chance of succeeding in the programme. Some studies have shown that international candidates are more likely to complete and to do so in a timelier manner (e.g. Jiranek, 2010; Spronken-Smith et al., 2018). However, irrespective of whether international or domestic applicants, it is very important to ensure they have the background, ability and motivation to do doctoral research. Most institutions require applicants to submit their academic transcripts, evidence of language ability (if required), a curriculum vitae and possibly a research proposal. References are usually required and it is important that they comment on the capacity of the applicant to undertake research at a doctoral level. Whilst supervisors may be initially corresponding with applicants, it is advisable to have a central unit such as a Graduate School or Doctoral College overseeing admission offers to ensure due diligence and consistency across the institution.
Graduate Schools also have a key role to play in monitoring candidature to ensure candidates are progressing well and receiving the necessary support. An important first step is to ensure there are mandatory candidate-supervisor agreements, which get completed in the first few weeks. These agreements typically cover logistical details such as contact details and the title of the thesis, but more importantly, a discussion of expectations in terms of the boundaries of the relationship, guidance for aspects of the research and the frequency and nature of meetings, as well as expectations regarding feedback and any co-authored work. Graduate Schools should also be providing mandatory induction for new candidates, to ensure they are welcomed to the University and become aware of important first steps during their doctorate, and sources of support.
Many PhD programmes have a probationary period, which is both for candidates to ensure they are committed to doctoral study, and for the institution to be confident in the candidate’s ability to complete. Ideally, firm targets should be set for this first year such as developing a full research proposal, or undertaking a literature review, or gaining skills in experimental or laboratory techniques. Importantly, during this probationary time, a target that addresses the candidate’s ability to think critically and to engage critically with the literature should be included. It is possible that candidates are in the wrong programme and if they leave within the first year, this is seen as ‘good attrition’.
Once confirmation into the PhD programme has been approved, regular reviewing of progress should occur (6 monthly or annually), and this should be conducted by someone independent to the supervisory team. These reviews provide a formal opportunity to give feedback on progress, to consider completion timelines and to raise and discuss any issues affecting progress, which may include poor supervision. Of course, such meetings are laden with power dynamics, so it is important for the meeting convener to offer a pre-meeting with the candidate (and supervisors) to hear about any issues and ensure these can be raised in the meeting. If progress has been identified as being poor or unsatisfactory and assuming there are no mitigating factors such as health issues, it is important to initiate follow-up action either to get the candidate back on track, or to exit them from the programme, hopefully with a lesser degree.
At the University of Otago, the GRS oversees admission and completion of supervisory agreements, checks review reports and oversees examinations, as well as endeavouring to congratulate high achievers and support candidates (and supervisors) who are struggling with progress. Regarding the latter, the University has an ‘Under Review Procedure’ that can be initiated at any time, which entails a period of 2-3 months governed by a memorandum of understanding that specifies tasks to be done, the expected level of performance and support available to the candidate. Supervisors who are having difficulty with a candidate’s progress may get additional support through mentoring, or a more experienced supervisor joining the team. Sometimes it is poor supervision that is contributing to poor progress. If this is the case, the head of department is consulted as it is a performance management issue. This may lead to the supervisor attending some professional development sessions and/or more experienced supervisors joining the team.
Another function of a Graduate School is to have oversight of support for doctoral candidates.This support is likely to be wide ranging, from researcher development programmes, academic development, library and IT support, targeted support for minority groups, career planning services and wellbeing coaching and student health services. One common complaint from doctoral candidates is that they do not know what support is available. Some universities, including Otago, have developed web portals as a one-stop shop for candidates to find out what support is available. It is also important for Graduate Schools to evaluate the level of support provided to doctoral candidates. Feedback is typically gathered through annual student or graduate surveys, and importantly, this feedback should be used to improve the doctoral experience.
At the University of Otago, the GRS takes a holistic candidate-centred approach to supporting doctoral candidates. The School has two quite unique positions that are instrumental in supporting candidates. One is a Maori Postgraduate Support Adviser, who runs a programme of support for indigenous candidates.
The programme uses Maori pedagogies and kaupapa (approach) (Rachel Sizemore, personal communication). The Maori kaupapa uses a whanau (family) structure, with the student/supervisor relationship at the whanau level, and at the hapii (subtribe) level, Maori pedagogy initiatives are implemented to increase the likelihood of completion. The Maori pedagogy'Те whare tapa wha (Durie, 1998) addresses the person’s wellbeing holistically like four walls of a house (whare). Each wall represents the wairua (spiritual wellbeing), hinengaro (mental wellbeing), tinana (physical wellbeing) and whanau involvement (social connections).This model is adapted for the tertiary' environment, with activities such as regular hui (meetings), writing day's and writing retreats. The other unique position in the School is a Graduate Wellbeing Coach, who provides one-on-one consultancies for doctoral candidates to discuss their research productivity and wellbeing. The Coach also runs workshops on goal setting, time management and avoiding procrastination, and co-organises - with various student groups - day-long events to promote mental health and wellbeing. A recent initiative is the development of an ‘Activity' Passport’ - a small booklet of cultural, sporting, environmental and physical activities for candidates to complete over their candidature in an attempt to get them out of their offices and interacting with the local environs (see www.otago.ac.nz/ graduate-research/study/otago726835.pdf).
Institutions need to showcase and celebrate doctoral research and Graduate Schools are often tasked with leading events such as the 3MT® (Three Minute Thesis) competition, which is now hosted in nearly 70 countries. At the University' of Otago, there is an annual two-week Graduate Research Festival that includes events such as 3MT, as well as creative showcases with past events including ‘Bake Your Thesis’ (see 2018 winner in Figure 27.1),‘Dance Your Thesis’,‘Tweet Your Thesis’, ‘Thesis in 3 Pictures’ and ‘Elevator Pitch’. Such events foster important
FIGURE 27.1 The 2018 winner of'Bake Your Thesis’: ‘I incyst you try some’ communication skills in candidates (e.g. Hu and Liu, 2018), as well as promoting a sense of belonging and community. The efforts of supervisors should also be recognised and rewarded through promotion and awards. At Otago there are annual Supervisor of the Year Awards - a competition co-sponsored with the Otago University Students’Association.
The final aspect of institutional support for candidates concerns training supervisors. It is well known that having a strong and positive supervisory relationship assists not just timely completion but also, importantly, enjoyment of the research process (Golde, 2000). Surprisingly, across the globe, many universities still do not require supervisors to have mandatory training, and for some that do, the training may be more about administrative processes, rather than also including the practice of supervision. If seeking to support candidates to completion, institutions should be requiring mandatory training, and providing extensive programmes of professional development for supervisors. At the University of Otago, only minimal training is required, but the University does offer an extensive programme of support (that is well attended by supervisors), including workshops on recruiting candidates, administrative processes, providing quality supervision, giving effective feedback, progress reporting and preparing candidates for the examination.