One in Five Swedes Unhappy With Research Training

Swedish postgrads are a pretty contented lot. According to a recent survey, almost 80% of them would start their PhD studies all over again, even with the benefit of hindsight, and at the same university. That four out of five postgraduates are pleased with their situation sounds pretty impressive. But, notes the National Agency for Higher Education ( Högskoleverket), that still equates to "22% calling their PhD studies 'unsatisfactory' or 'very unsatisfactory'."

The agency's report, " Mirror for Postgraduate Students 2003," is based on a questionnaire sent to 9800 students--roughly half the postgraduates in Sweden. And with a response rate of over 70%, the agency is fairly confident that its findings can be extrapolated across the whole postgrad population. Almost 4000 unhappy punters means that action is required to tackle the problem areas outlined in the survey, it believes.

One such problem area is the induction period. A stunning three-quarters of replies mention having received too little information about the rights and duties connected to the status of PhD student. It seems likely that many of the satisfied one-in-four are studying in graduate schools, a recent addition to the Swedish university system, which caters for only a small fraction of postgraduates.

SDoK, the National Association of PhD Students, is pressing the agency to bring in rules covering the induction period. "The introduction should be made to fulfil certain requirements," says SDoK chair Gustaf Mårtensson. Mårtensson is a PhD student at the Royal Institute of Technology which has recently implemented a system of twice-yearly 'Introduction Days' with good results. Under such a scheme all new postgraduates would get to meet representatives of the university and student union leadership, and would be given full information on their terms of employment, pension agreements, illness allowance, insurance, and so forth.

PhD students' status within their departments is also a cause for concern. All too often they feel like marginal outsiders, not really belonging to the staff. Only one out of four postgraduates at the medical university Karolinska Institutet feels able to influence decisions in his or her department, for instance.

In the Swedish university system, PhDs are expected to finish their theses in 4 years, extended to 5 years if they are assigned departmental work, such as undergraduate teaching. "But the postgraduates shouldn't only teach. They should also be asked to join administrative committees and do other tasks, in order to be seen as true members of the group," points out Lina Carls. A PhD student in Lund, she chairs the Swedish Association of Postgraduate Students, part of the university teachers' trade union.

Mårtensson believes there is a need for mandatory courses for all supervisors, supervision being another problem area highlighted by the survey. Forty percent of postgraduates receive less supervision than they would like to, and this lack--according to one in four--has affected their work negatively.

There is no stipulated number of hours for postgraduate supervision in Sweden. According to the survey, postgraduates in theology and humanities received only between 1 and 5 hours of supervision in the autumn term of 2002, compared to 11 to 15 hours in science and a whopping 16 to 20 hours in mathematics. The Högskoleverket questions these differences, asking whether they are motivated by genuinely different input needs according to discipline, or by tradition and other factors.

Carls believes that most supervisors really want to do their best. The problem is rather one of time and expectations, she says. They must be allotted time for supervision and to attend courses for supervisors. And the supervisor and his or her student should have a thorough discussion at least once a year in order to agree on the duties of each party, she suggests.

A less-than-optimal relationship with one's supervisor increases the stress felt by postgraduates. This was emphasised by another survey, published in August by the trade unions ST and TCO. This found, for instance, that almost 90% of the interviewees from Göteborg University were often worried by thoughts of work during their leisure time. It is no small task to complete the high-quality research leading to a thesis in the allotted 4 years, and postgraduates often feel severely pressed for time.

Such stress is experienced more strongly by women than by men. All in all, women seem to fare worse in several respects. Female postgraduates more often have an uneasy relationship with their supervisor than males, feel less accepted by their senior colleagues, and have a less positive view of their academic environment.

So what happens now? The Högskoleverket doesn't want to be prescriptive. Attached to each chapter of its survey, however, are a number of questions for universities to discuss. For example, could departments be reorganized to give postgraduates a bigger say in their affairs? And, in what way could female postgraduates be better supported?

The survey has received much attention in the general media and in the university press, and chances are that some changes will be made. Courses for supervisors are already under way, and more attention will probably be given to the induction period for new postgraduates.

Other problems are more difficult to solve, however. The 4-year time limit on PhD study depends on a government decision not likely to be changed. And even the most willing supervisors suffer from a heavy workload, which limits the time available for supervision.

Perhaps, though, just having voiced their problems may have helped ease the postgraduates' burdens. When things look glum one should also remember that 80% of them actually were pretty satisfied to start with. ...

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