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Institute for

the Advancement
of University
Learning

The Research Experience


of Postgraduate Research
Students at the University
of Oxford

Keith Trigwell

Harriet Dunbar-Goddet

UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
The research experience of postgraduate research
students at the University of Oxford
Contents Page

Headlines ........................................................................................................................ 2
Summary......................................................................................................................... 3
1. Introduction ................................................................................................................. 9
2. Previous studies of the experience of students in postgraduate research (PGR)
programmes .............................................................................................................. 10
2.1 Presage (student characteristics and the established research context) ............ 11
2.2 Research Process ............................................................................................... 14
2.3 Product ................................................................................................................ 17
2.4 A model of the research experience of postgraduate research students ............ 20
3. Students approach to research and how research approaches are related to
research environment items and scales.................................................................... 21
3.1 An Approach to Research Scale ......................................................................... 21
3.2 Perceptions of research environment scales....................................................... 22
3.3 Relations between perceptions of research environment and approaches to
research..................................................................................................................... 23
4. PGR students perceptions of their research environment........................................ 25
4.1 Research environment and skills scales scores.................................................. 25
4.2 Response to individual items............................................................................... 28
4.3 Student satisfaction with overall aspects of their research environment ............. 30
5. Relations between the research variables in the study............................................. 32
6. Perceived research environment and doctoral completion times.............................. 39
7. Students perceptions of their research environment and the RAE .......................... 40
8. A research experience questionnaire for Oxford....................................................... 41
8.1 Supervision, departmental infrastructure and departmental intellectual climate . 41
8.2 College support ................................................................................................... 42
8.3 Satisfaction items ................................................................................................ 43
9. PGR students experience of the Roberts skills agenda ........................................... 44
10. The teaching experience of PGR students ............................................................. 48
11. Other factors (funding, language )....................................................................... 50

Annexe I: Frequencies and means of questionnaire item responses ........................... 51


Annexe II: Scales .......................................................................................................... 57
Annexe III: Departmental information............................................................................ 61
Annexe IV: Completion times (total terms by commencement year by division) .......... 62
Annexe V: Proposed OPREQ ....................................................................................... 63
Annexe VI: Study methodology..................................................................................... 66
Annexe VII: Study questionnaire................................................................................... 68
Annexe VIII: Qualitative study PGR student Interview Schedule ............................... 72
Annexe IX: References ................................................................................................. 73

Keith Trigwell and Harriet Dunbar-Goddet


Institute for the Advancement of University Learning
University of Oxford
October 2005
Version2.0
The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

Headlines

The overall experience of research at Oxford, as described by most PGR students,


is positive (Section 4.3) with 74.8% of students agreeing that they are satisfied with
the quality of their research experience, 9.8% disagreeing, and with a neutral
response from 15.4% (Annexe I, Table A, Item 39);
The quality of research supervision is described, in the research literature, as a
major factor affecting the quality of students research. At Oxford, supervision is
seen by students as an important factor, but not as important as their departmental
intellectual climate (Section 4.1);
The number of times students meet with their supervisor differs between the
Sciences and the Arts, but both contain variation. When the frequency of meeting is
highest (in both cultures) students describe a more supportive supervisory and
intellectual climate, and higher levels of overall satisfaction (Section 5);
When students experience a supportive departmental intellectual climate, they are
more likely to describe satisfaction with the services and facilities, with supervision,
and with their overall research experience (Section 5);
Whether students supervision is single, co- or group, there is no difference in their
overall satisfaction with the quality of their research experience, or satisfaction with
the quality of supervision (Section 5);
Students responses in describing their overall satisfaction with the quality of their
research experience are consistent with divisional variation in completion times and
departmental variation in RAE ratings (Sections 6 and 7);
There is no relation between a students allocated college (or whether it is a
graduate or combined college) and their overall satisfaction with the quality of their
research experience (Sections 5 and 8);
A proposed Oxford Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire containing
42 items in six areas found in this study to be related to the quality of the outcome
of the students programme, is attached. It is recommended as a way of monitoring
students perceptions and the effects of interventions aimed at changing students
perceptions (Section 8);
Students have varying conceptions of research, and that variation is related to how
they individually experience their research environment (Section 3). Addressing
students conceptions of research may be a path to enhancing their experience;
Only 3.5% of doctoral students at Oxford disagree that developing a wider range of
skills (such as communication and team-working) is a valuable part of their
research programme (Annexe I, Table A) (Section 9);
The development of research skills may be assisted by also addressing and
improving students perceptions of their research environment, such as supervision,
departmental intellectual climate and departmental infrastructure, as well as raising
awareness of variation in students conceptions of and approaches to research
(Section 9);
About one half of the students who want to teach get an opportunity, and almost
one half do not think it is clear how to find out how to do so (Section 10);
Nearly 50% of students agree that they are concerned that their financial situation
may affect the quality of their research. Students whose first language is not
English also express concerns about the quality of their research (Section 11).

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Summary

1. The study conducted for this report had five aims:


To explore how Oxford Postgraduate Research (PGR) students conceive of and
approach their research and to see how those self-reported approaches relate
to a range of research environment indicators;
To use a stratified representative sample to assess students perceptions of
their research environment;
To provide information for the university on a possible questionnaire to regularly
gauge the experience of PGR students (OPREQ);
To investigate students response to the Roberts skills agenda;
To investigate aspects of teaching by PGR students.
A summary of the results obtained in the study for each of these aims is provided under
the relevant question heading in the remainder of this summary.

2. The effective postgraduate research course context is described in detail in the Code
of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education,
Section 1: Postgraduate Research Programmes (The Quality Assurance Agency for
Higher Education, 2004). The document includes sections on institutional arrangements
(such as the availability of the code of practice); the presence of an environment where
high quality research activity is occurring; clear and equitable admissions systems,
effective supervision; progress, review, feedback and complaints and appeals
mechanisms; opportunities for students to develop research and other skills; and clear,
fair and accessible assessment criteria.

3. The Oxford Commission of Inquiry (1997a) found some evidence of students


dissatisfaction with the research intellectual climate, with 32% of respondents
experiencing their academic contact with Senior Members as poor, and 22% describing
their academic contact with other graduates as poor. This dissatisfaction appeared to
be unrelated to discipline or other factors. The Commission of Inquiry report also noted
that students in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are more likely to rate their
academic conditions as poor than students within Science, Medicine and Education.

4. The quantitative study reported here used an adaptation of an existing instrument


(Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire, GCCA & ACER, 2002) sent to a 1
in 5 stratified sample of PGR students, and returned by 626 of them (82%). This report
contains a separate analysis for each of the two-cultures (Arts and Sciences).
Department of Continuing Education students are included proportionally in the sample,
but analysed separately only in Section 8 (A research experience questionnaire for
Oxford) because of the low numbers involved.

What are the perceptions Oxford students have of their research environment?

5. The results from this study show that the overall experience of research at Oxford is
positive, with students agreeing in very high proportions that the library facilities support
research, that supervision is available when needed and is of high quality, that a range
of important skills are being developed, and that colleges provide an opportunity for
social contact with other postgraduate students (Section 4.2). Nearly 75% of students
agree that they are satisfied with the quality of their research experience, about 10%
disagree, and a neutral response is received from 15% (Annexe I, Table A,
questionnaire item 39).

6. The high mean scores in the areas described in point 5 above hide a significant body
of disagreeing (dissatisfied) students. Around 11% of the sample (or approximately 450

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PGR students in the University) disagree that they are satisfied with their overall
experience of research supervision (Annexe I, Item 38). The number of students in the
survey sample (of 626) who do not consider that they are a part of a supportive
departmental intellectual research climate is over 120 (Annexe II) (or about 800
students University-wide). The majority of students surveyed do not agree that they are
clear about how complaints procedures are handled, that colleges provide supportive
subject area communities, and that appropriate financial support is available in Arts
faculties/ departments (Annexe I, Items 36, 45, 28).

7. Students responses are consistent with completion times and departmental RAE
ratings. Bowen & Rudenstine (1992) found that doctoral completion rates were better in
the Sciences. They attribute this variation to disciplinary differences in the areas of
supervision and the extent to which students work in groups or teams. This Oxford
study confirms these results but also shows that where students perceive a more
supportive departmental environment such as in the Science disciplines (in
Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences), students complete their
studies in a shorter time, whereas completion times are longer in divisions where the
environment (mainly departmental infrastructure and intellectual climate) is perceived
as being less supportive (Section 6). Finally, students in departments that are more
highly RAE-rated say they are more satisfied with their supervision and with their
overall research experience (Section 7).

8. A summary of the main conclusions from the analysis is presented by key area in
points 9-16 below. This study also focused on how variation in these key areas is
related to other aspects of the research context, as a means of ascertaining the value
of monitoring these areas. These results are included in each key area analysis.

9. Supervision: Students perceptions of their research supervision suggest that it is a


strength of the Oxford system. The mean response on a five-point agree-disagree scale
to the item: Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research supervision, is 4.01,
with 70 students (11.2%) disagreeing. Satisfaction is highest in the Humanities and
Mathematical and Physical Sciences divisions. Students who scored highly on a
perceptions of the quality of supervision scale were more likely to say they are
satisfied with the quality of their research experience. The Commission of Inquiry
(1997a) concluded that the frequency of meetings between students and supervisors
varies between the two-cultures (Arts and Sciences) and that 70% of students saw this
as about right. However, in this study, for the whole sample and within each of the two-
cultures, more frequent supervisor meetings are associated with students perceptions
of a more supportive research environment; and students who experience more
supportive supervision are more likely to say they develop graduate skills and express
higher satisfaction with their research experience. Students in the Sciences perceive a
more supportive supervisory arrangement when they have only one supervisor. There
is no difference between supervision types for Arts students (Section 5, Table 6a).
Overall satisfaction with supervision is not related to gender, but Science students who
spend more time on their research, and those in Arts and Sciences in the earlier years
of their programme, are more satisfied with the quality of their supervision (Section 5).

10. Departmental intellectual climate: Nearly a quarter of students do not agree that
their department provides them with a supportive intellectual climate. In this study, this
area included items such as A good seminar programme for postgraduate students is
provided; The research ambience in the department stimulates my work; and I feel
that this department provides a supportive working environment. Students responses
vary significantly by division with Medical Sciences and Mathematical and Physical
Sciences being significantly more supportive than Humanities, Social Sciences and Life
and Environmental Sciences. Recent literature suggests that doctoral programmes in
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Arts and Social Science areas do not need to be as isolating as they are (Cadman,
2000; Golde, 2000; Elton & Pope, 1989; Deem and Brehony, 2000). Social isolation,
according to Wright & Lodwick (1989), is a departmental issue and one that does
require attention. In their longitudinal study of factors affecting first year progress in
doctorates in all disciplines, they write that departments must do more to encourage
participation and foster a sense of collegiality. Anderson (1996) goes further and
suggests that students would do well to seek out highly collaborative programmes.
Correlations between departmental intellectual climate and research outcome
indicators are found for the Arts and the Sciences and the climate is considered more
supportive when students meet more frequently with their supervisor(s). Departmental
intellectual climate is not related to gender, and students towards the end of their
studies find it less supportive (Section 5), as do students in RAE-rated 4 and 5
departments (Section 7).

11. Departmental infrastructure: The Sciences divisions are seen by students as


offering more supportive departmental infrastructures, where issues such as access to
equipment and technical support are included along with items on departmental
administration, financial support and access to working space. Students who scored
highly on the Departmental Infrastructure scale were more likely to say that they are
satisfied with the quality of their research experience. Perceptions of more supportive
departmental infrastructures are related to more frequent meetings with supervisor(s),
to group research supervision in the Sciences (Section 5) and RAE-rated 5*
departments (Section 7). There are no relations with gender or college (Section 5).

12. General infrastructure: Approximately 10% of students do not agree that they are
satisfied with the university admission and enrolment process, nearly 20% do not agree
that the university administration supports their research, and 30% disagree that
complaints handling procedures are clear. These items are part of a loose collection of
university-wide items that are related to an experience of high quality research. The
other items on library provision, common room space and general conditions of study
are answered much more positively. There is a strong correlation between students
perceptions of the general infrastructure and their satisfaction with the quality of their
research experience, but few other relations with other variables used in this study
(Section 5).

13. Awareness of assessment requirements: How students are assessed is a major


factor in the quality of their experience. Students were asked whether they agreed that
the requirements of Transfer of Status and of the final assessment processes were
clear. More than 15% disagreed in both cases. Students who are more aware of the
assessment requirements are more likely to describe satisfaction with the quality of
their supervision and their overall experience. These relations are similar in the
Sciences and the Arts. Awareness of assessment requirements is not strongly related
to gender, year of study, hours per week spent on research, frequency of supervisory
meetings, type of research supervision (solo, co- or group) or college type (Section 5).

14. College: Seventy percent of students in the sample are from combined colleges. On
a scale of eight items concerned with college support, there was no significant
difference between the combined college group response and the graduate college
group response. On only one of the eight individual items was there a difference, where
students in the combined colleges were less likely to say that they feel they are a part
of a community of scholars in their subject area than those in graduate colleges (means
of 2.53 and 2.82 respectively). Students in the combined colleges were more likely to
say that their college offers some financial support for their research activities than
those in graduate colleges (means of 3.50 and 2.96 respectively). Students college
type is not related to their perceptions of their research environment, but students feel
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supported more when they live in the college. There is considerable variation between
colleges in how students experience the support from their college (Sections 5 & 8.2).

15. Student Characteristics: Nearly 50% of students agree that they are concerned that
their financial situation may affect the quality of their research. Students whose first
language is not English also express concerns about their research quality (Section
11). In the whole study only one significant gender difference was observed, in which
male students self-rated the quality of their research higher than females. However,
hours spent per week on research is related to many variables. When students say
they spend less than 30 hours per week on their research, they are less likely to agree
that their department offers a supportive infrastructure or intellectual climate, they agree
that they have less development of research skills and they have an overall lower
satisfaction with the quality of services and facilities, supervision and overall research
experience. There are few differences between those who spend between 30 and 45
hours a week, and those who spend more than 45 hours a week on their research
(Section 5). Students in the later years of their doctoral studies experience less
supportive departmental infrastructure, less supportive departmental intellectual
climates and less supportive supervisory contexts (Section 5).

16. Overall satisfaction: Overall satisfaction with the quality of their research experience
(item 39) does not vary significantly by division, college or type of supervision, but it is
higher with higher frequency of supervision meetings. Satisfaction with the quality of
supervision is very high (university mean 4.01) and highest in the Humanities division. It
is higher than the same students mean response to the item on overall satisfaction with
the quality of the research experience, in all divisions except the Medical Sciences.
Differences between the divisions in satisfaction with services and facilities are
significant, but where they are lower, the satisfaction with the quality of supervision
(and other factors) appears to compensate, as differences between divisions in overall
satisfaction are not statistically significant. Science students satisfaction with their
research experience is related to the amount of time they have spent on their research.
Similar relations are not found in the Arts. Overall satisfaction is not related to gender or
year of study.

What is the proposed structure and content of an Oxford research experience


questionnaire?

17. A proposed Oxford research experience questionnaire (OPREQ) is attached


(Annexe V). It does not address all aspects of the students research experience, but it
does include the students perceptions variables that, from this Oxford study, have
been shown to be related to indicators of research outcomes (student satisfaction, skills
acquisition and, indirectly, completion times and RAE ratings). For example, when
students experience a supportive departmental intellectual climate, they are more likely
to describe satisfaction with the services and facilities, with supervision, and with their
overall research experience (Section 5). Previous cohorts of students from the same
departments are more likely to have completed their studies in shorter times (Section
6).

18. The proposed questionnaire contains 42 items that do not clash with questions
currently asked in most departmental questionnaires. It can be administered
electronically, and the results can be made available on the Oxford website. Use of this
questionnaire with current students would show students describing their supervisory
arrangements as most supportive of their studies, their departmental intellectual climate
as least supportive, with departmental infrastructure, college and general infrastructure
being similarly and moderately supportive. There are differences between divisions in
departmental intellectual climate, departmental infrastructure, and students awareness
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of the assessment requirements, but as with the undergraduate Oxford Student Course
Experience Questionnaire, the best use of the OPREQ is to monitor change in one
context over time, rather than compare different contexts (Section 8).

19. Interventions aimed at changing the perceptions of students already accepted at


Oxford, in those areas related to outcomes, are more likely to lead to an enhanced
research experience than a focus on areas that are not related to outcomes.
While perceived support from college varies considerably from college to college, this
variation does not translate into students overall satisfaction with their research
experience: relations between allocated college and overall satisfaction show no
significant difference. For this reason, and because most colleges have their own
feedback systems, it is suggested that the OPREQ contain only an overall college
satisfaction item, rather than a College Support scale (Section 8).

Do students with different views of what research is about experience a different


research environment?

20. Most students see their research as being more about contributing to the big
picture, integrating and discussing ideas within and outside the project, as being
worthwhile, as something they have more control over, and they adopt a more
integrated or holistic approach than other students (Section 3.1). When students
experience their research in this more holistic way, they have a higher self-rating of the
quality of their research, they feel that they are making more progress in their
development of research skills, they are more satisfied with the quality of their
supervision and with their overall research experience, and describe more supportive
research environments in all areas except department infrastructure and awareness of
assessment (Section 3.3).

21. The relations described above suggest that changing students perceptions of their
research environment, particularly their departmental intellectual climate, general
infrastructure support, supervision arrangements, and college environment, may lead to
more holistic approaches to research. Holistic approaches to research, which are
associated with higher quality outcomes, may also be enhanced through discussions
aimed at making them more explicit.

What are Oxford research students perceptions of the Roberts skills agenda?

22. Only 3.5% of doctoral students at Oxford disagree that developing a wider range of
skills (such as communication and team-working) is a valuable part of their research
programme (Section 9).

23. Students assessment of their acquisition of key skills is unrelated to their division,
college and type and frequency of supervision meetings, but it is related to their
approach to research, their perceptions of their supervision, departmental intellectual
climate and departmental infrastructure support (Section 5). These relations suggest
that the development of research skills may be assisted by also addressing and
improving students perceptions of their research environment, such as supervision,
departmental intellectual climate and departmental infrastructure, as well as raising
awareness of variation in students conceptions of, and approaches to research.

What are Oxford research students views about teaching undergraduate


students during their research programme?

24. Approximately half (46%) of doctoral students report that they currently teach, or
have recently taught, undergraduate students. The most common form of teaching is
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tutoring, which is done by 194 (68%) of the graduates who teach. When graduate
students say they plan to pursue an academic career, they are significantly more likely
to say their research will benefit from teaching undergraduates during their research
degrees (Section 10).

25. Of the 500 students (81%) considering an academic career, 87% agree that
teaching is likely to benefit rather than hinder their research, with students who see
their research approaches as more holistic also being more likely to see teaching as
benefiting their research. 11.1% of the whole sample disagree that teaching is likely to
benefit rather than hinder their research (Section 10).

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1. Introduction

The study conducted for this report had five aims:


To explore how Oxford Postgraduate Research (PGR) students conceive of and
approach their research and to see how those self-reported approaches relate
to a range of research environment indicators;
To use a stratified representative sample to assess students perceptions of
their research environment;
To provide information for the university on a possible questionnaire to regularly
gauge the experience of PGR students (OPREQ);
To investigate students response to the Roberts skills agenda;
To investigate aspects of teaching by PGR students.

Each of these aims is addressed using results from a survey of PGR students, and
reported in a different section following this introduction and an overview of the
literature on the experience of postgraduate research students.

Tabular summaries of the results from the survey are presented in Annexes I-IV.
Annexe V contains the proposed Oxford Postgraduate Research Experience
Questionnaire (OPREQ), which has been developed from the results of this study and
is presented for discussion in the collegiate university. Descriptions of the study
methodology, sample size and selection, and analytical processes used are included in
Annexe VI. Annexe VII contains the study questionnaire and Annexe VIII information on
the qualitative parts of the study.

The project described in this report, does not aim to repeat the research done at Oxford
and elsewhere on issues such as graduate admissions and enrolments (Atkinson, et
al., 2004) or on completion rates. Nor does it aim to address issues related to the
quality of individual supervision or student welfare, finances and personal issues. The
previous research that has been reported in these areas is summarised in Section 2.
The focus of this study extends that literature to look at the way aspects of the research
environment established by the university and colleges are experienced by research
students, with the aim of suggesting how those perceptions might be changed to
improve the experience of research students.

Previous studies of the doctoral experience, including the Oxford Commission of


Inquiry, consistently show disciplinary differences on many indicators used. For
example, the Oxford Commission of Inquiry (1997a) found that students within Science
and Medicine had more day-to-day contact with their supervisors, and expected more
discussion with their supervisors, than students within the Humanities and Social
Sciences. Rather than repeat these known results, the analysis of the data from this
study have been conducted separately for the two-cultures (the Sciences and the
Arts). The main reason for this approach is to explore the relations within similar
disciplines. If within similar cultures, the students who experience less day-to-day
contact with their supervisors are also the students who report lower attainment of
research skills, or lower levels of satisfaction, then that effect is less likely to be
discipline-based, and may be a subject justifying further investigation.

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2. Previous studies of the experience of students in postgraduate research


(PGR) programmes

The research experience of postgraduate research students has been the subject of
extensive research. Two comprehensive texts, one from Britain (Becher, Henkel, &
Kogan, 1994) and the other from the USA (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992), present
overviews on graduate education in their respective counties. Becher, et al. focus
largely on policy issues, as they relate to the characteristics of students and
departments. They note the importance of the debate on the purposes of the doctorate
and how it is increasingly being seen as research training rather than new knowledge
generation. Studies that inform their views are mainly qualitative. Bowen & Rudenstine
present a more quantitative study, focusing on policy, trends and factors affecting
outcomes.

At Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry (1997a) carried out a survey of Graduate


Students in Hilary Term 1996. The questionnaire concentrated mainly on the amount
and type of teaching received, the use of facilities such as libraries and computers, and
on financial aspects as well as questions about the amount of teaching available. Three
issues were frequently commented on by the students: the collegiate system, the
quality of research supervision and facilities, whilst course content and opportunities
also provoked some comments. A common complaint was that both the University and
the colleges gave priority to undergraduate needs and research over graduate
requirements, leaving graduates as second-class citizens. (Commission of Inquiry,
1997b, p.491).

The most complete studies of the form described in this report have been carried out
using the Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire (PREQ) which was
developed in Australia (Australian Council for Education Research (ACER), 1999). All
Australian postgraduates who have completed a research degree are asked to
complete the PREQ (Graduate Careers Council of Australia (GCCA) & Australian
Council for Educational Research (ACER), 2002). The questionnaire was developed
through literature reviews of research students experience, current institutional
evaluation research, good practice, and outcomes in relevant area; existing
instruments; feedback from Higher Education staff; a special conference, and focus
groups with research students (Marsh, Rowe & Martin, 2002).

The PREQ contains six scales, five of which examine students experiences of the
process of their research degrees (these scales examine students perceptions of the
infrastructure of the environment in which they are studying, of the intellectual climate in
which they are studying, of the goals and expectations of their courses, of supervision,
and of their thesis examination), and one which examines the outcomes for students
through their perceptions of the skills they have developed through their doctoral
studies. An overall satisfaction with their doctoral studies item is also included. These
scales have been found to be internally consistent and in a confirmatory factor analysis
have been found to be a good fit with the data (Marsh et al., 2002). The student data
elicited using the PREQ have also been found to have a similar structure across
different broad areas of study (Arts/Humanities vs. Science/Engineering) (Ramsden,
Conrad, Ginns & Prosser, 2003).

In this review of this and other postgraduate research we address separately (a) the
characteristics of students and the context as established by the university, (b)
processes of research and (c) outcomes of research. The three areas correspond to
Presage, Process and Product (3P) elements of the research experience.

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The final section brings the three sections together in an adapted 3P model that shows
the factors that this literature suggests will impact on postgraduate research students
experience of the research environment at Oxford. It is this model that is used to inform
the study that is described in Sections 3-5.

2.1 Presage (student characteristics and the established research context)

Studies of presage factors found to be related to success on doctoral programmes


reveal few useful insights. Wright and Cochrane (2000) included students age; mode of
study (f/t or p/t); origin (home/EU/overseas student); sex; funding; class of first degree;
university of first degree; and discipline, in their study of 3579 theses from the
University of Birmingham. Only discipline (the success rate was better in the Sciences)
was found to be a reliable predictor, but intrinsic student characteristics (such as
motivation and conceptions of research) and institutional conditions were not included
in the study. Some studies that do include intrinsic student characteristics and
institutional conditions are presented in the following sections.

2.1.1 Student characteristics

Reasons for undertaking a research degree


Both Anderson and Swazey (1998) and Atkinson, et al. (2004) investigated the reasons
given by students in undertaking their research degrees. The study by Atkinson, et al.
looked specifically at Oxford University entry, and for 57% of students, the reasons for
applying only to Oxford were for the reputations of the course or the supervisor.

Anderson and Swazey found that the distributions of importance (very and somewhat)
in students decisions to go to graduate school were as follows: Desire for knowledge
(99%); Desire to do research (94%); Desire to benefit others through this work (82%);
Desire to teach in higher education (71%); and then a big drop to 44% for career
related reasons.

Demographic information
The Atkinson et al. (2004) pilot study of Oxfords UK graduate entry student
demographic characteristics suggests that new graduate students at Oxford are drawn
more or less half from Oxbridge and half from other universities, with only a quarter
coming from universities outside the Russell Group. The graduate students arriving
from universities other than Oxford or Cambridge are less frequently funded by Oxford-
specific scholarships, are more frequently members of graduate colleges, are over-
represented in Arts subjects, have more frequently applied to universities other than
Oxford and are more likely to belong to an older age group than the new graduates
who come from Oxbridge.

Students experience of research contexts are related to their cultural backgrounds.


Deem & Brehony (2000) note that international and part-time students have the most
difficulty accessing peer cultures and academic cultures, but international students are
much more favourably disposed to research training cultures than others. Cadman
(2000) also addresses the issues of divergent cultural backgrounds in postgraduate
programmes which may assume unquestioningly that only students from cultures
different to that of the award-offering University need to change their academic goals
and practices, especially in relation to critical thinking. It is argued that the challenge is
to learn on both sides. Suggestions for departmental changes from Deem & Brehony
(2000), Elton & Pope (1989) and Cadman (2000) are discussed under experienced
intellectual climate below.

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

Gender
While there are large differences between the numbers of male and female students
enrolling to study in the different disciplinary areas, there is little evidence of gender
differences within the disciplinary areas. Wright & Cochrane (2000) found no significant
differences between the sexes in success rates in doctoral studies at the University of
Birmingham. Bowen & Rudenstine (1992) note that in the USA, gender is only a very
small part of the explanation for lower completion rates in the Humanities and Social
Sciences (p. 125).

2.1.2 The research context

The effective postgraduate research context is described in detail in the Code of


Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education,
Section 1: Postgraduate Research Programmes (The Quality Assurance Agency for
Higher Education, 2004). The document includes sections on institutional arrangements
(such as the availability of the code of practice); the presence of an environment where
high quality research activity is occurring; clear and equitable admissions systems,
effective supervision; progress, review, feedback and complaints and appeals
mechanisms; opportunities for students to develop research and other skills; and clear,
fair and accessible assessment criteria. In this section we focus on what we consider to
be five key university presage areas: supervision, the infrastructure of the research
environment, the intellectual research climate, discipline and mode of study, and
assessment.

Supervision
The research supporting the Code of Practice has, as its main focus, the context of
supervision. Holdaway, Debois, & Winchester (1995) summarise comments from nearly
700 experienced supervisors of Canadian masters and doctoral students in eight
disciplines. The synthesis of the literature focused on creativity, mentoring, support;
procedures to ensure progress; and disciplinary differences, which were combined with
the research results to produce a list of good supervisory practice. Pole, Sprokkereff,
Burgess, & Lakin (1997) also use this type of research to develop guidelines for
supervisory practice. Their guidelines include issues such as maximum supervisory
loads; relations between the supervisors research and the doctoral project; the
importance of what the supervisor does, such as giving feedback, keeping the project
manageable, and making revisions to the project where necessary.

In the Australian context, Heath (2002) describes variation in supervisory provision in


which 32% of 355 respondents say they have a single supervisor, with the rest saying
they have one or more associate supervisors. Dissatisfaction with supervision was at
about 6%.

At Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry reported that the quality of supervision was a
major source of dissatisfaction for some respondents, although there were many who
were very happy with their supervisor. (Commission of Inquiry, 1997b p.492). Some of
the respondents to the consultation questionnaire made suggestions that included
having formal guidelines about supervisors obligations that include a minimum time
allocation and also a more formal system for appointing a second supervisor.

Departmental infrastructure of the research environment


Resources in departments, such as necessary equipment, technical support, library
access and space are not usually reported as issues affecting success in doctoral
programmes. However, Wright & Lodwick (1989) describe the problem of social
isolation as being a departmental issue and one that does require attention. In their
longitudinal study of factors affecting first year progress in doctorates in all disciplines,
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they write that departments must do more to encourage participation and foster a sense
of collegiality. They also found that problem areas included the identification of the
research topic and project planning, writing, and learning about key research skills such
as accessing information sources; research techniques, design and implementation;
and organising and managing the thesis. At Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry also
reported on the academic facilities such as library access, workspace and computing
and they also flagged up that some students in the Humanities and Social Sciences felt
they suffered from a lack of academic support because they did not belong to a
formally organised department which led to feelings of isolation both academically and
socially (Commission of Inquiry, 1997b, p.494).

Both Elton & Pope (1989) and Collinson (1998) see some of the difficulties experienced
by students being related to unclear purposes of the PhD. The PhD is now seen in the
UK as a period of training for future researchers as distinct from the generation of new
knowledge, says Collinson. These are conceptions of research held by staff and
university departments and they influence the research ethos experienced by
students.

The training and the problems that go with this approach generic skills, research
design, data collection and the application of instruments, as described in the Roberts
report (Roberts, 2002) are questioned. She sees research as essentially a craft, and
though it is theoretically informed, it is essentially a practical endeavour. The new
demands put even more pressure on students as some proposed outcomes may not be
possible.

Intellectual climate
As noted above, suggestions for the improvement of the intellectual climate (Deem &
Brehony, 2000) include the development of collegiality (also from Elton & Pope, 1989)
to overcome power issues and the idea of collective responsibility (Cadman, 2000).
Most writers claim that Social Sciences degrees do not need to be as isolating as they
are. Integration by students into the research and social community were found by
Golde (2000) to be crucial factors in doctoral attrition. His results include a reminder of
the complexity of graduate student lives, and the conclusion that attrition is a shared
responsibility of department and student. Three themes emerged: academic integration
relations with faculty; social integration the student community; and telling others
about leaving. It seems the decision to leave is not readily told to anyone, especially
the department. Anderson (1996) investigates collaboration in Science and Social
Science areas and concludes that there is much to recommend the collaborative
department.

Johnson, Lee, & Green (2000) use a gender-based analysis to question the idea of
autonomy and the independent learner, particularly in the Humanities and Social
Sciences, and what it does to the intellectual climate. They note that traditional
practices of PhD supervision assume autonomy in the form of the exemplary
figure of the independent scholar to be the desired outcome. Our analysis suggests
that figure is a problematic one for the profoundly gendered character of the
assumptions of reason and autonomy it invokes.. (p.141) Necessary to the sense of
autonomy that is the endpoint of this pedagogy for the development of the rational,
independent scholar, the student must experience themselves in control, as author of
their intentions, as exercising free will and independence. (p.142)

Disciplines and mode


There are significant differences between the disciplines in doctoral completion rates,
with Humanities and Social Sciences having the lower success rates and the Sciences
the highest successes (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Wright & Cochrane, 2000). The
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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

main disciplinary differences appear in the areas of supervision and the extent to which
students work in groups or teams. Studies with a disciplinary focus include Morton &
Thornley (2001) in Mathematics, Pole et al. (1997) in Science, Johnson et al. (2000)
and Collinson (1998) in the Social Sciences. Chiang (2003) looks at the concept of
teamwork in Chemistry and Education.

Issues associated with part-time research studies receive little attention, though Evans
(2002) describes the contribution they make to the knowledge economy and argues for
greater understanding of the impact and benefits for the public good. Taylor (2002) in a
paper on trends in graduate education highlights increasing proportions of part-time
students along with an expansion of international recruitment and changes in course
delivery with the use of new technologies as the major change areas.

Assessment
While there is variation internationally in the modes of doctoral assessment, the
processes across disciplines within nations, are quite uniform. Oxford, which has a
process similar to most UK universities appoints two examiners, neither of which is the
supervisor, to consider the thesis and abstract, to examine the student orally, to satisfy
themselves whether the student has a good general knowledge of the field of learning,
and to report to the faculty concerned on the scope, character and quality of the work
submitted (University of Oxford, 2003, p.818).

2.2 Research Process

2.2.1 Motivation and Conceptions

There is little research that directly examines students motivations and conceptions
within the PGR learning environment, as opposed to students motivations and
conceptions before they graduate.

One area relating to students perceptions of the goals and expectations of their
courses that has been explored in the wider literature is students conceptions of what
is expected in reviewing the literature that relates to the area of their research. Bruce
(1994) in a phenomenographic study of research students early experiences of the
dissertation literature review constituted six qualitatively different ways in which
students conceived of their literature reviews. These ranged from students seeing the
literature review as a collection of items representing the literature of the subject to
seeing the literature review as a written discussion of the literature that draws on
previous research. Bruce (1994) argues that her findings suggest that some students
early in their courses have impoverished ideas of what the literature is about. In a
similar way in a US study, Caffarella & Barnett (2000) found that preparing critiques on
other students work and, in turn, receiving critiques of their work from other students as
well as their professors, was perceived by research students as highly influential in
helping them to understand the process of scholarly writing.

Both of these findings could be interpreted as relating to conceptions of the literature


(and of research) or issues surrounding students perceptions of the goals and the
expectations of their courses. Bruce's (1994) finding could be interpreted as suggesting
that some students are unclear as to the purpose of their literature review early in their
studies, whilst the Caffarella & Barnett (2000) study suggests a way in which research
students might become clearer about what is expected in academic writing.

2.2.2 Perceptions of the research environment

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The Student Course Experience Questionnaire (SCEQ), which provided many of the
process variables for the student perceptions of the learning environment element of
the Oxford undergraduate learning experience research (Trigwell & Ashwin, 2003), has
proved to be unsuitable for research students. This led to the development of the
Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire (PREQ) in Australia (Australian
Council for Education Research (ACER), 1999) described above. Four of the process
scales areas from the PREQ (students perceptions of the infrastructure of the
environment in which they are studying, of the intellectual climate in which they are
studying, of supervision, and of their thesis examination), will be used to structure the
rest of this section of the review. However, it will draw upon literature that goes beyond
that used in the development of the PREQ.

Students perceptions of the infrastructure of the environment in which they are


studying
Within the PREQ, students perceptions of the infrastructure in which they are studying
refers to the extent to which students feel that they had access to an environment that
would support their learning in terms of physical and financial resources. The PREQ
study (GCCA & ACER, 2002) found that there were disciplinary differences in students
perceptions of their infrastructure, with students in the Arts, Humanities and Social
Sciences experiencing less access to resources than students in the Sciences. In the
UK, Chiang (2003) found that Chemistry students perceived their infrastructure as more
supportive than Education students. Within Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry (1997a)
had similar findings with students in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences more
likely to rate their academic conditions as poor than students within Sciences, Medicine
and Education.

In some ways these findings are unsurprising given the differences in the ways in which
research degrees in different disciplines are structured. The important question, from
the perspective of this review, is the impact this has on the quality of students overall
experience. Due to the differences across disciplines, the effect of access to a
supportive infrastructure is probably best examined within disciplines.

Students perceptions of the intellectual climate in which they are studying


Within the PREQ, students perceptions of the intellectual climate in which they are
studying refers to the opportunities available for social contact with other students, the
extent to which they felt they were integrated into the departmental community, the
opportunities to become involved in a broader research culture, the extent to which
students perceived that there was a stimulating research ambience and their
perceptions of the quality of the seminar programme that was provided for them.

Students in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been found to have significantly
lower scores on this scale than students in the Sciences (GCCA & ACER, 2002). In the
US Anderson & Swazey (1998) found that Sociology students were less likely than
students in Chemistry, Civil Engineering and Microbiology to see their departments as
community orientated. Similarly in the UK, Chiang (2003) found that Chemistry students
were more likely to perceive the research environment as effective than Education
students in terms of staff approachability, students-staff interaction and the research
culture. Chiang (2003) argues that this is due to the teamwork research training
structure in Chemistry, in which research students and their supervisors work on the
same projects, whereas Education has an individualist research training structure,
where students and supervisors work on separate problems.

Within Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry (1997a) found some evidence for students
dissatisfaction with the intellectual climate, with 32% of respondents experiencing their
academic contact with Senior Members as poor, and 22% describing their academic
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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

contact with other graduates as poor. This dissatisfaction appeared to be unrelated to


discipline or other factors.

Students perceptions of the goals and expectations of their courses


There appears to be very little literature on how students perceptions of the goals and
expectations of their research degrees impact on their experience of studying. The
PREQ items that make up this scale are related to students perceptions of how well
they felt they understood the standard of work required in their studies and in their
theses (GCCA & ACER, 2002).

Students experiences of supervision


The PREQ items on the supervision scale focus on students perceptions of the
availability of supervision, their perceptions of the support, guidance and feedback
provided by their supervisors, including guidance relating to the literature review. Use in
Australia of the PREQ on students experiences of supervision shows students from
Humanities and Social Sciences feeling more supported than students from Sciences
and Engineering (GCCA & ACER, 2002).

It is also clear from examining the wider literature in this area, that students in different
disciplines have very different experiences of research supervision. However, the
differences are not the same, or even in the same direction as those found using the
PREQ. Broadly stated these differences are that students within the Natural Sciences,
particularly in experimental disciplines1, tend to be part of a research group, in which
they have a clear role and in which they work alongside other researchers on related
topics. They tend to be more involved in group discussions and group publications.
However, they tended to be assigned the problems that they were to research in the
completion of their doctorates. Those within the Social Sciences tend to report feeling
socially isolated, as there tend to be fewer of them and they were often not involved in
conferences and colloquia. They also report being intellectually isolated as they are
treated as individual scholars with responsibility for their own projects. For Social
Science students, this can make the supervisory relationship even more central to their
doctoral experience (Chiang, 2003; Delamont, Atkinson, & Parry, 2000; Pole et al.,
1997).

Disciplinary differences have also been picked up within Oxford. The Commission of
Inquiry (1997b) found that students within Sciences and Medicine had more day-to-day
contact with their supervisors and expected more discussion with their supervisors than
students within the Humanities and Social Sciences. However, the amount of contact
was seen as about right by over 70% of the students within each discipline.

Within the supervisory relationship, a tension has been highlighted between the extent
to which students should be given autonomy in deciding their own work and the extent
to which they should be guided by their supervisors (Delamont et al., 2000; Gurr, 2001).
Such tensions are clearly related to the disciplinary differences outlined above and to
the stage that the student has reached in their doctoral research. However, there is the
potential for conflict if student and supervisor have different views of how this tension
should be balanced (Wright & Lodwick, 1989; Dawson, 1996; Gurr, 2001; Haksever &
Manisali, 2000; Lee, 1998). One area of particular conflict appears to be around the
degree of support in learning how to conduct research that students expect to receive
from their supervisors, with students satisfaction with the level of support they receive
in this area being related to their satisfaction with the supervision generally (Haksever &
Manisali, 2000; Heath, 2002).

1 It should be noted that in theoretical scientific fields students may experience isolation (for example, see
Morton & Thornley (2001) on Mathematics doctoral students in New Zealand)
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Students perceptions of their thesis examination


The PREQ thesis examination scale looks at students perceptions of the fairness of,
and satisfaction with the examination process as well as whether the examination was
completed in reasonable time (GCCA & ACER, 2002). However, it should be noted that
in Australia, theses are examined without viva examinations. This, as well as the focus
of our research being on current research degree students, means that this scale is
less relevant to our research and, indeed, when Ramsden et al. (2003) carried out a
study using the PREQ with existing research students, they also dropped this scale.
Despite this, students perceptions of the ways in which their work will be assessed is
likely to impact on their approaches to studying. There is often a disjunction between
students expectations and their actual experiences of their viva examinations and the
variability of such examinations (Tinkler & Jackson, 2002).

2.2.3 Approaches to research

There has been very little research into variation in the approaches to research adopted
by PGR students. Parallels with the undergraduate learning experience would suggest
that approaches to research are likely to be focused more on the students personal
search for meaning than on attempts to satisfy an external assessor, such as a
supervisor or examiner. The research by Brew (2001), Bruce (1994), Kiley & Mullins
(2003), Meyer, Shanahan, & Laugksch (2003) and Pearson & Brew (2002) suggests
that some students may take a more holistic and integrated approach to their research,
seeing it as part of an integrated whole, whereas others are more likely to see their
research as being about developing techniques and about what it is that external
others, such as supervisors, see as being important. These hypothesised differences
are tested in this study.

2.3 Product

The product variables are the outcomes of the research experience for the students.
The two outcomes scales areas of the PREQ are the focus of this section of the review.
However, as in the process section above, it will draw upon literature that goes beyond
that used in the development of the PREQ. The PREQ (GCCA & ACER, 2002)
outcomes areas are the students perceptions of their skill development and their
overall satisfaction with the research degree experience. Closely related to these
positive outcomes are the reasons why students do not complete, or take a long time to
complete, which can be seen as negative outcomes of the experience. The literature
points to quality of supervision as a key factor to satisfaction (Haksever & Manisali,
2000; Harman, 2002; Sayed, Kruss, & Badat, 1998), however other factors such as the
research environment (Anderson & Swazey, 1998; Asmar, 1999; Golde, 2000; Harman,
2002) also contribute to students satisfaction. The possibility of finding a job post-PhD
(Bazeley, 1999) and the learning of key skills are also outcomes that have received
attention in the research literature (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000; Sayed et al., 1998).

In this section we will look in turn at three of these elements of the research experience:
completion time, key skills and satisfaction.

2.3.1 Completion

Typically studies on the doctoral experience focus on students who complete their
degree. Golde (2000) suggests that a lot of information could be gleaned from students
who leave their doctoral programme. Two of the most often cited problems are a lack of
methodological skills and isolation (Sayed et al., 1998), which shows that the doctoral
experience is both academic and social. Academic reasons were central in the attrition
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reported by Golde (2000) and Haksever & Manisali (2000). Haksever & Manisali (2000)
report that one of the major reasons for non-completion is deficiencies in the
supervision received and their results also showed that the biggest discrepancy
between expected and provided supervision was in direct research-related help. This
is unsurprising given that Seagram, Gould, & Pyke (1998) note that more frequent
supervision is strongly associated with successful completion.

Beyond the supervision aspect, other academic reasons combine to affect the time to
completion or a decision to drop out, for example students have no or inadequate
experience of research and thesis/academic writing, students may be enrolled part-time
and have demanding professional careers or other priorities (Evans, 2002; Sayed et al.,
1998). The personal/social aspect of the experience is also problematic with issues
such as isolation, and for women in particular a chilly climate, family commitments,
finance, and problems with personal relationships, affecting the students doctoral
research and leading to withdrawal or non-completion in some cases (Sayed et al.,
1998; Seagram et al., 1998).

In Wright & Cochrane's (2000) study the only factor that emerged as a reliable predictor
of successful submission was whether a student was researching a Science-based or
an Arts and Humanities-based subject. In their study the most successful were students
in a Science-based subject, funded by research council, 21-26 years old at entry and
who had a 1st or upper second. They found no gender effect, no nationality effect, and
no effect from continuing their doctoral studies at the same university. What is
interesting is that these most successful students are the ones least likely to face the
difficulties mentioned above (financial difficulties, family commitments, no experience of
academic writing).

2.3.2 Key (transferable) skills

The doctorate is now seen in the UK as a period of training for future researchers, and
part of that training involves the development of a range of skills. The objective is to
produce professionally trained researchers who are able to undertake any research
project in their general discipline area having completed the skills training (Collinson,
1998). The literature describes the key skills students expect to acquire during the PhD
experience as academic (such as methodological skills (Sayed et al., 1998), how to
produce scholarly writing (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000) or more particularly literature
reviews (Bruce, 1994)), or personal/social. The more personal skills such as growing
confidence and autonomy are given as positive outcomes of the research experience
(Sayed et al., 1998). There is also some mention of the skills that future non-academic
employers would like postgraduates to work on such as team-work, project
management and communication skills (Bazeley (1999) reports Clark (1996)).

The PREQ (GCCA & ACER, 2002) scale relating to skill development in Australia asks
about the students problem solving skills, written work, analytic skills, work planning
and tackling unfamiliar problems. Students who completed the PREQ in 2000 reported
a high level of satisfaction with their own development of research skills. An Australian
study has reported that women felt that the opportunities for research skills
development during candidature were given to men (Asmar, 1999) although it should
be noted that according to Holdaway (1996) quoted by (Bazeley, 1999) the acquisition
of knowledge and skills is only a secondary focus in postgraduate studies in Australia,
as opposed to the American model.

Sayed et al. (1998) suggest that in order to facilitate completion there is need for more
structured and formal learning, teaching and training around research, for example
through research workshops that would: introduce students to the concept of research,
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and cover issues related to knowledge production, developing a research proposal and
project, conducting a literature review, understanding the relationship between theory
and research, using research methods and techniques, using data sources, issues
related to note-taking and writing, and revising and editing an academic text.

A current government initiative in the UK, following the Roberts Report (Roberts, 2002)
is that doctoral students develop certain transferable skills during their doctoral
programmes. The UK Research Councils have issued a Joint Statement of Skills
Training Requirements (JSSTR) (Research Councils UK, 2001), that doctoral research
students funded by the Research Councils would be expected to develop during their
research training. The JSSTR describes seven broad skills areas: A: Research Skills
and Techniques, B: Research Environment, C: Research Management, D: Personal
Effectiveness, E: Communication Skills, F: Networking and Team-working, and G:
Career Management.

It is felt by the UK GRAD Programme (2004) that a Personal Development Planning


(PDP) process is a way to realise the ethos of the Roberts review. Indeed the most
recent Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in
Higher Education requires that institutions provide research students with appropriate
opportunities for personal and professional development, which include the
development of research and transferable skills. It suggests that Planning for skills
development and checking that necessary guidance and support has been provided
should form part of the process of personal development planning. It also suggests that
research students may find it useful to use the PDP tools provided by their institutions
to record their personal progress and development, including reference to research and
other skills. (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2004). The PDP will
also give students an opportunity to reflect on their skill development which might
otherwise be rather implicit or embedded, and this should in turn lead to higher scores
on a questionnaire like the PREQ.

2.3.3 Satisfaction

The PREQ (GCCA & ACER, 2002) asks students about their overall satisfaction with
the quality of their higher degree research experience. Harman (2002) reports relatively
low satisfaction ratings given by PhD students to their overall course experience,
particularly with supervision, and that females are more dissatisfied than males. Only
57% of students said their experience was satisfactory or very satisfactory, while 13%
said unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory. Harman goes on to explain that
unsatisfactory or lowly-rated course experience may indicate that academic
departments have been less than successful in offering rich PhD training and research
experiences, while dissatisfaction with course experience is likely to have an adverse
impact on career plans and interest in pursuing a research career.

Also related to students satisfaction is whether or not they have found secure,
appropriate employment (Bazeley, 1999), how they experienced the research
environment (Anderson & Swazey, 1998; Asmar, 1999) and supervision (Sayed et al.,
1998; Seagram et al., 1998). For example Asmar (1999) found that the departmental
environment during the PhD had been more satisfying overall for men than for women.
Bazeley (1999) reports that candidates with a strong career focus were among the
most disgruntled and gives examples of the intense frustration among those who were
unable to gain secure, appropriate employment after all the years of studying and
training to be a researcher, whilst those who did a PhD out of interest in research or the
topic spoke of positive outcomes of their study such as a gain in status and the
development of networks.

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It is also important to note that gender, whether a course is Science-based or Arts-


based and whether the student is full-time or part-time is related to course satisfaction
and/or completion. For example Smeby (2000) reports that female PhD students are
more likely than males to drop out before completion, whilst Seagram et al. (1998)
make mention of the chilly climate experienced by women.

2.4 A model of the research experience of postgraduate research students

The factors shown in Figure 1 are hypothesised to be related in ways that help to
explain variation in outcomes of postgraduate students research at Oxford. The
following sections contain the results of the study conducted to explore these factors
and relations.

Student
characteristics:
Gender, cultural
background,
previous educational
experience,
conception of
graduate studies

Motivation &
conceptions:
Motivation, self-efficacy,
conception of learning,
conception of research Approach
to Research
research: outcomes:
Perceptions of Holistic/inte- Completion,
environment: grated or key skills,
Perceptions of research serialist/fra- satisfaction
Course context: infrastructure, gmented?
Division, intellectual climate,
supervision, course goals and
monitoring and expectations, supervision,
feedback assessment
mechanisms,
intellectual climate,
departmental
conceptions of the
purpose of the
research degree

Figure 1: Adapted 3P (presage-process-product) model of student learning for


postgraduate research programmes

A consistent message from the literature review described above is that there are quite
different cultures in different disciplines. Variation between the disciplines is therefore to
be expected. With respect to this study, the variation within a disciplinary area is of
more interest, as it may offer insight into ways in which activities in that disciplinary
area might be adjusted to achieve higher quality outcomes. In the rest of this report, the
sample of 626 doctoral candidates is analysed (a) as a whole and (b) in two groups
(two-cultures: Arts and Sciences) and in a few cases, by division.

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3. Students approach to research and how research approaches are


related to research environment items and scales

3.1 An Approach to Research Scale

The question we sought to address in this part of the study is: What is it that students
who think and act more like researchers value more in their research environment? The
following four items are part of a seven-item Approaches to Research scale used to
describe thinking and acting like a researcher (Annexe II, Table C). To experience what
it means, you may wish to record what you consider to be the preferred student
response to these items and note the total of the sum of the numbers in your response.

Item strongly disagree neutral agree strongly


disagree agree

1. It is important to me that my research is well inte-


grated with existing knowledge and topics in the field
2. Often I find myself wondering whether the work
I am doing here is really worthwhile . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3. I see my research as contributing in some way
to big picture issues. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. I usually try to discuss with others new ideas
I have in my research. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Total = _________

The response to these four items from 626 PGR students who returned questionnaires
varied widely as shown in Figure 2. Their individual totals range from 6 to 20 with a
mean of 15. The mean score is high, but it is the variation that is significant. A similar
distribution is also found in each division, and for each of the Sciences and Arts
(Annexe II, Figure A).

120
100
Frequency

80
60
40
20
0
6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
4-item total
Figure 2: Variation in 4-item total for students approaches to research (n=626)

An Approaches to Research scale was constituted from these four, and three other
similar items (Annexe II, Table C). Some students see their research as being more
about contributing to the big picture, integrating and discussing ideas within and
outside the project, as worthwhile, and as something they have more control over. They
have a more integrated or holistic approach than other students. Research by

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Anderson and Swazey (1998) found that the reason 99% of students decided to go to
graduate school was a desire for knowledge. The results found for this scale suggest
that what is considered as knowledge, and how it is attained, varies widely within this
Oxford group.

Previous studies have shown that research students vary in their perceptions of their
research environment (Ramsden, Conrad, Ginns and Prosser, 2003). This Approach to
Research scale is used to address the question: Do students whose response is
towards the right of Figure 2 have a different perception of their research environment
than those more to the left? If they do, does this relation suggest a path to changing
students perceptions?

3.2 Perceptions of research environment scales

Using the information in the literature (Section 2.2.2) and especially the QAA Code of
Practice (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2004) and the Postgraduate
Research Experience Questionnaire (PREQ) (GCCA & ACER, 2002), the questionnaire
used in this study made use of 31 items, making up five scales of perceptions of the
research environment. The perceptions scales are in the areas of: supervisory support,
departmental intellectual environment, departmental infrastructure support, general
infrastructure support and awareness of the assessment. A new scale on college
support was also added based on pre-study interview data. Each scale is briefly
described below. The items making up each scale, and the extent of the internal
consistency of these items (scale reliability, alpha) is given in Annexe II, Table C.

Supervision: The Supervision Scale contains 5 items that address issues such as
availability of the supervisor, feedback, literature and topic area guidance and the
students perceptions of the efforts made by supervisors to meet their needs. It has
been designed to accommodate various forms of supervision, including sole and group
supervision.

Departmental Intellectual Climate: The ten items in this scale address the extent to
which students experience support in areas such as opportunities in their department
for social and academic engagement, working environments and a feeling of belonging
to a departmental academic community.

Departmental Infrastructure Support: This scale contains six items on students


perceptions of their access to necessary equipment, technical support, working space,
finance and the effectiveness of departmental administration.

General Infrastructure Support: Six different broad topic areas are drawn together
under this heading, such as library facilities, university administration, admissions and
enrolments and complaints handling procedures. The extent of commonality between
the items is low, but in this report the six items are combined to form a scale.

Awareness of Assessment: This scale contains four items on the students perceptions
of the clarity of the assessment processes in the programme as well as the perceived
support available.

College Support: Perceptions of the supportiveness of the students allocated college is


a scale composed of 8 items on areas such as support from College Advisor, from
college officers, availability of college computing facilities, and the opportunities for
contact with other students and academic tutors.

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

3.3 Relations between perceptions of research environment and approaches to


research

Table 1 contains correlation co-efficients of relations between Approach to Research


scale scores and perception of research environment scores. It shows that the students
who describe a more holistic approach to research (higher scores on Approach to
Research scale) perceive a more supportive departmental intellectual climate, a more
supportive general infrastructure, a supportive supervisory arrangement and a
supportive college environment (correlation co-efficients (whole sample) of 0.27, 0.26,
0.30 and 0.26 respectively). A similar structure is found in both two-culture analyses
(Table 1, Arts and Sciences).

Table 1: Analysis of relations (correlations) between Approach to Research and perceptions of


the research environment (for scale information, see Annexe II Table C).

Perceptions of environment Approach to Research


Whole sample Arts Sciences
Departmental Intellectual Climate Scale .27 .30 .37
Departmental Infrastructure Scale .09 .12 .30
General Infrastructure Scale .26 .24 .32
Supervision Scale .30 .30 .37
College Support Scale .26 .21 .24
Awareness of Assessment Scale .09 .10 .16
N = 618-626 (whole) 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences); numbers in bold (red) are statistically significant
(p<.05)

The Approaches to Research scale also shows strong relations with indicators of
outcomes of research. Table 2 shows the correlations between students self-rating of
the quality of their research (item 70), their development of a range of research skills,
and with their descriptions of their satisfaction with three areas of the research context
(Items 37, 38 and 39). The Skills Development scale (the mean of a students score on
seven generic skills acquisition items) is described in more detail in Section 9 and
Annexe II, Table C.

Table 2: Analysis of relations (correlation co-efficients) between approach to research and


outcomes of the research approach

Outcomes of research Approach to Research


Whole Arts Sciences
Self-rating (item 70) .46 .46 .46
Skills Development Scale .44 .44 .54
Satisfaction with services .15 .21 .28
Satisfaction with supervision .24 .22 .33
Satisfaction with research generally .41 .43 .50

N = 626 (whole) 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences); numbers in bold are statistically significant (p<.05)

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

When students experience their research more holistically, they have a higher self-
rating of the quality of their research, they feel that they are making more progress in
their development of research skills, and they are more satisfied with the quality of their
supervision and with their research experience overall.

The results presented in this section have also been used to test the validity of the
perceptions of the research environment scales and the outcome indicators. Students
perceptions of more supportive environments are expected to correlate positively with
more holistic approaches to research, and to higher quality outcomes and satisfaction.
The cluster analyses (Annexe VI, Tables A-C) conducted using these variables indicate
that these relations are found for the whole sample and the two-cultures (Arts and
Sciences) populations.

In summary, the results presented here suggest:


(a) that discussion with research students about their conceptions of, and
approaches to research may lead to students adopting the more holistic
approaches to research which are associated with higher quality outcomes;
(b) that changing students perceptions of their research environment, particularly in
relation to departmental intellectual climate, general infrastructure support,
supervision arrangements and college environment may lead to more holistic
approaches to research.

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

4. PGR students perceptions of their research environment

4.1 Research environment and skills scales scores

The mean response scores from students (Table 3) on the research environment
scales (described in Section 3.2) and the Skills Development scale (Annexe II, Table C)
show students in highest agreement that they have acquired a range of generic
research skills and lowest agreement that they have a supportive departmental
intellectual climate and college support, though for all scales, the mean response is well
above the scale midpoint (3.0). The highest mean score is in the non-perceptions area,
Approach to Research.

Table 3: Scale means and variation in agreement for research environment scales (for scale
information, see Annexe II Table C).

Scale Mean SD % Disagree* % Neutral* % Agree*


Dept. Intellect. Climate 3.38 .69 24.0 6.5 69.5
College Support 3.52 .71 19.5 5.9 74.6
Dept. Infrastructure 3.54 .60 16.1 4.3 79.6
General Infrastructure 3.57 .51 9.1 8.0 82.9
Aware of Assessment 3.67 .79 14.7 9.0 76.3
Supervision 3.69 .79 15.7 5.3 79.0
Skills Development 3.80 .56 6.9 2.7 90.4
Approach to Research 3.84 .53 4.0 7.5 88.5
*% Agree: Scale scores >3.0; % Neutral: Scale score = 3.0; % Disagree: Scale scores <3.0

Two scales, Supervision and Awareness of Assessment, show higher standard


deviations (.79) than other scales, suggesting greater spread (higher proportions of
strongly agreeing and strongly disagreeing students).

A breakdown by division, of scores on the three key perceptions of research


environment scales, and for the whole university, are shown in Figure 3 (Annexe II
contains more scale information). The responses are on a 1-5 scale from (1) strongly
disagree to (5) strongly agree.

3.9
3.8
3.7
3.6
3.5 General Infrastruct
3.4 Dept. Infrastruct
3.3 Dept. Intell. Climate
3.2
3.1
3
HUM LES MPS MED SS Univ

Figure 3: Variation by division in perceptions of research environment indicators

Figure 3 shows that General Infrastructure support is perceived to be similar across all
divisions as would be expected given that these items are mostly about central services
such as enrolments, libraries and administration. Students comments in this area
include:
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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

Facilities in the Bodleian need modernising the absence of any common room
facilities is a big problem; the computers are too old/slow/unreliable. I also note the
paradox of an increasing reliance on online services (journals etc) that is
accompanied by very high printing and copying costs. There is little point in
investing in applications i.e. journals etc if the infrastructure (especially computer
maintenance) is so unreliable. It is not acceptable to shift increasing costs onto
users of a library when the facilities remain so poor. Much the same might be said
of the book stack request system how many research hours are lost as a result
of broken conveyer belts, sending up the wrong books, short-staffing? The
Bodleian remains an excellent collection of books, but lacks the relevant
infrastructure to be a world-class library. My experience in the British Library,
Library of Congress, University of California libraries, only highlight the
deficiencies here. (Humanities, Fourth Year)

My research experience at Oxford has been a very expensive undertaking. I am


wholly unaware of where my fees go and what they actually pay for in the process.
With the exception of the outstanding library collections, I feel that I have not
received educational support proportionate to these fees. Rather, I feel that the
university administration has been an incredible hindrance to my academic
pursuits. (Social Sciences, Third Year)

Figure 3 also shows that Infrastructure support in the departments and a supportive
departmental intellectual climate vary noticeably (and statistically significantly) across
the divisions, being highest in Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Medical
Sciences in the case of both scales. Two comments from students on these scales are
included below.

My particular department provides a fantastic environment for research.


Supervision is excellent without being intrusive. Lab and IT support is equally
exemplary. I have had the opportunity and been encouraged to present my
research at numerous national and international meetings. I cannot recommend
my department highly enough. (Medical Sciences, Third Year)

Our supervisors are not at the department; our lectures/seminars/teaching are not
in the department; our library is not in the department only the faculty admin,
whom we only very rarely need to contact, and printing/photocopying facilities are
actually there. Ideally, graduate student offices would be of immense value they
would a) provide workspace, which is currently exceedingly limited. b) encourage
interaction (academic as well as social) between post grads. c) improve the use of
the department facilities. (Humanities, Third Year)

Students scores on their perceptions of supervisory support (from the Supervision


scale), Skills Development and Awareness of Assessment, by division are shown in
Figure 4 (and Annexe II). The responses are on a 1-5 scale from (1) strongly disagree
to (5) strongly agree.

Responses to the Supervision scale show high levels of agreement with a range of
aspects of supervision, with the perceptions of Humanities students being highest in
describing a supportive supervisory environment.

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

You will note that a great deal of my positive feedback regards my supervisor and in
some respects, my college. These are great variables for many students and I
consider myself extremely lucky. This also shows the extent to which a supervisor
can make or break a students graduate experience. The extent to which I am
informed of procedures has also been aided by my supervisor. (Life and
Environmental Sciences, Fifth Year)

3.8

3.6 Skills development


Supervision
3.4
Assessment
3.2

3
HUM LES MPS MED SS Univ

Figure 4: Variation by division in skills development, supervisory support and awareness


of assessment requirements

I saw my supervisor on average once a term for 3 years. In my 4th and last year, I
saw him perhaps 24 times. I think research is affected in a fundamental way by
ones relationship with ones supervisor, and perhaps more accurately, ones
expectations about how that relationship will unfold. I think it is vital to ensure that
there is some framework within which student/supervisor relationships should
operate. I think the absence of that framework took the pressure off in relation to
the amount of research that is undertaken. In the first few years I did not chase my
supervisor and he did not chase me. I therefore didnt do nearly the volume of work
in the first few years that I did in my last year. There would not have been this
squeeze at the end if I knew that I could expect to have work in every month or two
weeks (for example) from the very first term. I wish there had been some
framework, which would have guided me in relation to what to expect in this
respect. Such a framework, I have no doubt, would have facilitated my research no
end. It is so important that students are not left to hang, and I feel that the lack of
this framework is conducive to less (and less good) research. This might seem
more paternalistic but my own experience leads me to believe that it would improve
the rate and quality of research output. (Social Sciences, Fourth Year)

While students report that the quality of supervision is high in most cases, these two
quotes illustrate the importance of supervision to students. Atkinson et al. (2004) found
that 57% of Oxford doctoral students apply to come to Oxford because of the reputation
of the course and/or the supervision. The results shown here indicate that these
expectations are, in most cases, being met, though the 10% who do not find their
supervision supportive suggests there are around 400 students University-wide who
consider that they are not getting satisfactory supervisory support.

Skills development and awareness of the assessment have high levels of agreement
and do not differ significantly across the divisions. For some students, some
requirements are not clear.

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As a PRS student exempted from the Masters requirements, Ive found the
transfer of status process extremely confusing. Of the 3 students I know in the
same position, we have all received different and been given different information.
(Humanities, First Year)

In summary, these scale results show:


(a) most students describe their supervisory arrangements as most supportive of
their studies, their departmental intellectual climate as least supportive, with
departmental infrastructure, college and general infrastructure being similarly
and moderately supportive;
(b) perceived general (university-wide) infrastructure support does not vary by
division, but there are significant differences between divisions in departmental
intellectual climate, departmental infrastructure, and students awareness of the
assessment requirements; and
(c) students overall satisfaction varies moderately by division and is highest in the
Physical and Medical Sciences (Annexe II, Table B).

4.2 Response to individual items

The responses to the individual items used in the survey are shown in Annexe I, Table
A. They show several noteworthy features.

Almost 50% of students say the department is their usual working space, with
another 40% saying it is either home or library or a combination, including
department. Only 3% say it is their college alone, but another 6.4% say it is
college in combination with another area (Annexe I, Table C). However, this is
highly variant by discipline, as the columns on the right of Table C show. For the
Sciences group 87% work in the department, with over 95% working in a
combination of the department, home and library. For the Arts group, 36%
normally work at home, and another 28% in library and home. The majority of
students who work in college are from the Arts.

Over two-thirds of students (68%) experience sole supervision (78% in the Arts
and 58% in the Sciences), with 27% having co-supervision, and 5% with group
supervision (a total of 30 students with group supervision and all but 2 being in
the Sciences).

43% meet with their supervisor less than four times a term, and this is true for
60% of respondents in the Arts. 55% of the Sciences group meets with their
supervisor(s) 8 or more times a term.

For the whole sample, 28% spend 30 or less hours a week on their research,
43% spend between 31 and 45 hours, and 29% spend more than 45 hours a
week on their research. For the Arts, the percentages are 43, 39 and 18
respectively, while for the Sciences, they are 9, 48 and 40 respectively.

In terms of closed response item means (for questionnaire items 1-70) Annexe I, Table
A shows positive responses to all but three items (when reverse-direction items are
taken into account). Highly positive responses (means greater than 4.0) where high
proportions of students strongly agree or agree, are found for 12 items:

1. The library facilities at Oxford support my research


13. Research supervision is available when I need it
14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills
30. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to learn independently

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38. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research supervision


40. My college provides opportunities for social contact with other postgraduate students
49. I see my research as contributing in some way to big picture issues
53. When Im working on a research topic, I try to see in my own mind how all the ideas fit
together
54. Ideas that arise in my research often set me off on chains of thought of my own
58. It is important to me that my research is well integrated with existing knowledge and
topics in the field
64. I see university teaching as an important skill to acquire
69. I consider that developing a wider range of skills (such as communication, research
management, personal effectiveness, networking and team-working, career
management) is a valuable part of my research programme (scale 1-6)

When the highly positive response items are analysed for each of the two-cultures, in
the Arts all these items, except item 69, have means greater than 4.0. In the Sciences
there are 10 items with means greater than 4.0, but only 7 of them (13, 14, 30, 40, 53,
64, 69) appear in the list above. The other highly rated items by students in the
Sciences are:
2. I have access to a suitable working space
10. I have access to a common room or a similar type of meeting place
19. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my department

Science students are less satisfied with libraries and supervision, less likely to set off
on their own chains of research thought and to see integrated knowledge as important.
The overall impression to be gained from the responses to these items is very positive,
with students agreeing in very high proportions that the library facilities support
research, that supervision is available and of high quality, that a range of important
skills are being developed and that colleges provide an opportunity for social contact
with other postgraduate students.

The items with the lowest means and higher proportions of disagreeing students are:
28. There is appropriate financial support for research activities in the department (2.99)
36. Complaints handling procedures are clear to me (2.90)
45. In my college I feel I am a part of a community of scholars in my subject area (2.62)

In the Arts the lowest means items include the three items above as well as:
8. I feel integrated into the research community in the department/faculty
11. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to work collaboratively with
other researchers

The Sciences share only items 36 and 45 with the Arts.

Collaborative work within the Arts is not something most students agree with, and they
share with scientists a lack of a feeling of there being a subject area community in their
college. Both cultures experience lack of clarity in complaints handling procedures
(Item 36).

For a total of 26 items there are significant differences (p<.01) between the means for
Arts and Science students. These items and means are shown in Table 4 (p. 31).

In summary these results show:


(a) that in four areas of the research context (students workspace, type of
supervision, frequency of meetings with supervisor, and time spent on research)
there is wide variation within the whole population, and within the Arts and the
Sciences. The implications of this variation are illustrated in Tables 5-8 in Section
5;

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

(b) that students agree in high proportions that the library facilities support research,
that supervision is available and of high quality, that a range of important skills are
being developed and that colleges provide an opportunity for social contact with
other postgraduate students;
(c) that colleges do not provide subject area communities, students are not clear about
how complaints procedures are handled, and appropriate financial support is not
available in the Arts departments/faculties;
(d) Arts students are more likely than Sciences students to agree that libraries support
their research, that their research has sharpened their analytical skills, that they feel
isolated in their department, that supervision provides helpful feedback on progress,
that they feel integrated into their college community, that their research is affected
by other duties, and that university teaching is an important skill to acquire;
(e) Arts students are less likely than Sciences students to agree that they have access
to suitable working space, that they feel integrated into their department, that they
can manage their career progression, that they have the ability to work
collaboratively, that they have the needed technical support, that they have access
to computing facilities, that their departmental research ambience stimulates their
work, that their department provides appropriate financial support and a supportive
work environment, that they are satisfied with the quality of the services and
facilities, that they do not have sufficient control over their research, and that
developing wider skills is valuable.

4.3 Student satisfaction with overall aspects of their research environment

Student satisfaction with (a) services and facilities, (b) supervision, and (c) the overall
research experience is shown by division and for the University-wide sample in Figure
5. The responses are on a 1-5 scale from (1) strongly disagree to (5) strongly agree
(Items 37-39, Annexe I, Table A). University-wide means are 3.73, 4.01 and 3.85
respectively.

4.2

3.8
Services
3.6 Supervision
3.4 Overall

3.2

3
HUM LES MPS MED SS Univ

Figure 5: Variation by division of three satisfaction items (37, 38, 39)

Satisfaction with the quality of supervision is high and above the mean for overall
satisfaction with the quality of the research experience in all but the Medical Sciences
Division. However, 11.2% of students disagree that they are satisfied with the quality of
their research supervision. This amounts to 70 students in this sample and
approximately 450 students university-wide. The proportions of disagreeing students
are similar across the divisions.

Differences between the divisions in satisfaction with services and facilities are
significant, being highest in MPS and Medical Sciences. Differences between divisions
in overall satisfaction are small and not statistically significant but the trends are similar

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

to those found for the perceptions of the research environment (Figure 3) and this
overall satisfaction score correlates with completion times (Section 6) and departmental
RAE ratings (Section 7).

Table 4: Items and means showing significant differences between Arts and Science

Item Mean
Arts Science
1. The library facilities at Oxford support my research 4.30 3.92
2. I have access to a suitable working space 3.64 4.34
8. I feel integrated into the research community in the
department/faculty 2.90 3.54
9. My postgraduate research studies have helped to develop my
awareness of what I need to manage my own career
progression 3.39 3.60
11 As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to work
collaboratively with other researchers 2.88 3.77
12. I have good access to the technical support I need 3.36 3.82
14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills 4.27 4.09
19. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my
department 3.48 4.07
20. I tend to feel isolated within this department/faculty 2.97 2.38
22. My research supervision provides me with helpful feedback on
my progress 3.94 3.54
25. The research ambience in the department stimulates my work 3.00 3.39
28. There is appropriate financial support for research activities in
the department 2.56 3.49
29. I feel that this department provides a supportive working
environment 3.29 3.70
37. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the services and
facilities 3.59 3.92
41. I feel integrated into my college community 3.61 3.29
42. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my
college 3.74 3.46
44. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively
encouraged in my college 3.97 3.76
53. When Im working on a research topic, I try to see in my own
mind how all the ideas fit together 4.30 4.12
54. Ideas that arise in my research often set me off on chains of
thought of my own 4.19 3.98
55. I concentrate most of my research effort on technical and/or
descriptive processes 2.58 3.28
56. In my research I concentrate on just those areas that are of
direct relevance to my topic 2.64 2.98
59. I feel as if I do not have sufficient control over the direction of
my research 2.30 2.57
60. The quality of my research work is affected by the amount of
time I need to spend on aspects of my life other than research 3.64 3.19
63. Teaching undergraduates at Oxford during my graduate
studies is one of my aims 3.65 3.41
64. I see university teaching as an important skill to acquire 4.31 4.02
68. Sufficient support is available for Transfer of Status 3.29 3.59
69. I consider that developing a wider range of skills (such as
communication, research management, personal
effectiveness, networking and teamworking, career
management) is a valuable part of my research programme 3.87 4.16

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5. Relations between the research variables in the study

While the results shown in Section 4.0 for the scales and the individual items show that
there is variation in how students experience these aspects of their environment, the
areas that might best be seen as the focus for change leading to improvements are
those where this variation is related to higher quality research approaches and
outcomes. This section contains a description of the relations between variables used
in the study and the significance of these relations.

Table 5 shows the relations between the six perceptions of the research environment
indicators, and the five indicators of outcomes of research used in this study. The
magnitude and direction of the same 30 relations are shown for each of the Arts and
Sciences samples in Table 5a.

Table 5: Relations (correlation co-efficients) between students perceptions of their research


environment and the five research outcome variables

Outcomes of Satisfaction with:


research
Perceptions of environment Self rating Skills Services Supervision Overall
scales Exp
Dept. Intellectual Climate .12 .49 .59 .36 .58
Departmental Infrastructure .06 .35 .68 .27 .46
General Infrastructure .17 .37 .51 .30 .45
Supervision .26 .35 .32 .83 .53
College Support .13 .19 .13 .09 .17
Awareness of Assessment .13 .24 .34 .30 .31
N = 615-626 (numbers in bold (red) are statistically significant) (p<.05)
Correlation co-efficients range from 1.0 to +1.0. In studies of this type, numbers between 0.2
and +0.2 are zero to low correlations, and numbers above +0.5 or below 0.5 are high
correlations.

Table 5a: Relations (correlation co-efficients) between students perceptions of their research
environment and the five research outcome variables for each of the two-cultures

Outcomes of Satisfaction with:


research
Perceptions of environment Self rating Skills Services Supervision Overall
Scales Exp
Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci
Dept. Intellectual Climate .09, .22 .46, .55 .59, .46 .37, .42 .60, .60
Departmental Infrastructure .02, .22 .32, .39 .70, .61 .29, .38 .48, .46
General Infrastructure .08, .29 .35, .45 .64, .36 .29, .31 .51, .39
Supervision .16, .37 .35, .42 .37, .35 .83, .83 .55, .55
College Support .05, .18 .21, .19 .18, .13 .06, .12 .19, .17
Awareness of Assessment .01, .27 .18, .33 .37, .27 .30, .33 .31, .31
N = 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences); (numbers in bold (red) are statistically significant) (p<.05)

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For both tables all scales except the college support scale show significant positive
correlations with outcome indicators, suggesting that there is some validity in using
these scales in a research experience inventory (see Section 8). Perceptions of
departmental intellectual climate, departmental infrastructure, general infrastructure and
supervision are all strongly related to satisfaction and skills development items and
scales. Students awareness of assessment requirements are moderately related to
these outcomes.

The notable difference between Arts and Sciences (Table 5a) is that Science students
rating of their own research performance is much more strongly related to their
perceptions of their research environment, than is the case for Arts students. In all
other areas, the Arts-Sciences differences are very small, though Science students
have lower correlations between perceptions of general infrastructure support and their
overall satisfaction and satisfaction with services and facilities.

These results show that (a) doctoral candidates perceptions of their research
environments are related to several measures of research outcome (for example, when
students experience a supportive departmental intellectual climate, they are more likely
to describe satisfaction with the services and facilities, with supervision, and with their
overall research experience), and (b) the correlations found for the whole sample are
also found within each of the two-cultures (even though the frequency of meetings
between supervisors and students differs considerably between the Arts and Sciences,
in both areas students who experience more supportive supervision are more likely to
say they develop graduate transferable skills and express higher satisfaction with their
research experience).

The relations between aspects of the established research context and students
perceptions of the research environment are shown in Table 6. The magnitude of the
same 24 relations are shown for each of the Arts and Sciences samples in Table 6a.

Table 6: Relations between aspects of the established research context and students
perceptions of the research environment (effect size of relation)

Established research context


Perceptions of Number of Type of College Type of
environment meetings with Supervision (Grad or residence
scales supervisor (sologroup) comb) (in or out coll)
Dept. Intellectual Climate large none small small
Departmental Infrastructure large large none none
General Infrastructure none none none small
Supervision large small none none
College Support none none none large
Awareness of Assessment small none none none
N=618-626. Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55
Effect size is used to describe the magnitude of relations in cases where correlation co-efficients
cannot be used.

When students have more frequent meetings with their supervisor in the Arts or
Sciences, they are more likely to describe a supportive departmental intellectual
climate, a supportive departmental infrastructure, and supportive supervision.

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The type of supervision experienced by students is not related to variation in any of the
research environment scales, except in the Sciences where students in sole
supervisory contexts describe a more supportive supervision context, and students in
group supervisory contexts describe a more supportive departmental infrastructure.

Table 6a: Relations between aspects of the established research context and students
perceptions of the research environment for Arts and Sciences (effect size of relation)

Established research context


Perceptions of Number of meetings Type of College Type of
environment with supervisor Supervision (Grad or residence
scales (sologroup) comb) (in or out coll)
Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci
Dept. Intell. Climate medium medium none None none none none none
Departmental small small none large none none none none
Infrastructure
General Infrastructure none none none None none none none none
Supervision large large none large none none small none
College Support none none none None none none large large
Awareness of none none none None none none none none
Assessment
N = 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences). Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55

Whether students are in graduate or combined colleges has no significant effect on any
of the research environment scales, but students living out of college describe a less
supportive college environment. None of the established research context variables are
significantly related to variation in perceptions of general infrastructure support.

These results show:


(a) more frequent supervisor meetings are associated with students perceptions of a
more supportive research environment;
(b) students college type is not related to their perceptions of their research
environment, but students feel more supported when they live in the college; and
(c) students in the Sciences perceive a more supportive supervisory arrangement
when they have only one supervisor, but a more supportive departmental
infrastructure when in group supervision.

The relations between student characteristics and their perceptions of the research
environment are shown in Table 7. The magnitude of the same 18 relations are shown
for each of the Arts and Sciences samples in Table 7a.

There is no difference by gender in how the environment is perceived by the students


and neither are perceptions of the general infrastructure, college or issues to do with
assessment related to year of study or hours spent on research per week. This is
consistent with the results from earlier research described in Section 2.1.1

There are differences, for the whole group (Table 7), where perceptions of
departmental intellectual climate, departmental infrastructure, and supervision are
found to be related to the students year of study. There is a downward trend by year of
study for all three of these scales with students in the first year of doctoral study being

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

more likely to agree and those who have been studying for four or more years being
less likely to agree that these environments are supportive. For example, the students
in their first year of study are more likely to agree that their supervision is supportive
than those in their fourth or more year of study (a mean of 3.84 compared to a mean of
3.42, which is a medium effect size).

Table 7. Relations between student characteristics and their perceptions of the research
environment

Student characteristics
Perceptions of environment Gender Year of Hours per week on
scales study research
Dept. Intellectual Climate none large medium
Departmental Infrastructure none medium medium
General Infrastructure none none none
Supervision none medium none
College none none none
Assessment none none none
N = 606-626. Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55.

Table 7a. Relations between student characteristics and their perceptions of the research
environment for Arts and Sciences

Student characteristics
Perceptions of environment Gender Year of Hours per week on
scales study research
Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci
Dept. Intellectual Climate none None small medium medium medium
Departmental Infrastructure none None none none none small
General Infrastructure none None none none none none
Supervision none None none none none none
College none None none none none none
Assessment none None none none none none
N = 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences). Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55.

These effects are not as strong for each of the Arts and Sciences groups (Table 7a).

Perceptions of departmental intellectual climate and departmental infrastructure are


also related to hours per week students say they spend on research. Students who
spend 30 or less hours a week agree less that they experience the supportive
departmental intellectual climate than those who spend more than 30 hours (a mean of
3.13 compared with means above 3.44). Similarly, the students who spend 30 or less
hours a week agree less that they experience a supportive departmental infrastructure
than those who spend more than 30 hours (a mean of 3.36 compared to means of over
3.60). No relations are found with the other scales. There are no Arts/Science
differences, with the only statistically significant relation being a medium effect size

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

relation between a supportive departmental intellectual climate and more hours per
week spent on research for both groups.

These results show:


(a) that students perceptions of their research environment are not gender related;
(b) that students in the later years of their doctoral studies experience a less
supportive departmental infrastructure, less supportive departmental intellectual
climates and less supportive supervisory contexts; and
(c) that students who spend the most time on their research activities are more likely
to describe a more supportive departmental infrastructure and intellectual climate,
but not a more supportive supervisory context.

The relations between the established research context and outcomes are shown in
Table 8.

Table 8: Relations (effect size) between aspects of the established research context and the five
research outcome variables

Outcomes of Satisfaction with:


research
University context Self rating Skills Services Supervision Overall
Exp
Division small none small none none
No. of meetings with supervisor none none small small small
Type of supervision none none small* none none
Allocated college none none none none none
Type of residence none none none none none
N=618-626. Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55.
* variation due to divisional effect (Sciences students with more co- and group supervision
respond that they are more satisfied)

In the divisions, students in Social Sciences rate the quality of their research work
slightly higher than students in the other divisions where students give roughly the
same rating. The only other differences between divisions on the outcome indicators is
a small effect-size difference in students satisfaction with the quality of their services
and facilities, with students in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences/Medical
Sciences being most satisfied.

The number of times a term students meet with their supervisor(s) is not related to their
self-rating or to the extent to which they feel they acquire research skills, except in
Mathematical and Physical Sciences where less frequent meetings are associated with
significantly lower self ratings. Frequency of meetings is related to all three aspects of
satisfaction. Satisfaction with the quality of services is lower when students meet less
frequently with their supervisor. This is the case in all divisions except Mathematical
and Physical Sciences. Satisfaction with the quality of supervision, and overall
satisfaction with the research experience is lower when students meet less frequently
with their supervisor, for all divisions, but this effect is strongest in the Mathematical
and Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences divisions.

The type of supervision experienced by students is not related to their outcome


indicators. A higher satisfaction with services and facilities is related to group
supervision, but almost all this type of supervision is found in Mathematical and

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Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences, where satisfaction is highest with services
and facilities. This result is significant. It suggests that whether the supervision is single,
co- or group, there is no difference in overall satisfaction with the research experience
or satisfaction with the quality of supervision.

Neither the students allocated college type (combined or graduate), nor whether they
reside in or outside the college, are related to any of the outcome indicators.

Comparing Tables 5 and 8 (even focusing on the amount of bold (red) type) it can be
seen that attempts to improve outcomes are more likely to be successful through action
taken on students perceptions of the research environment, such as departmental
intellectual climate, than changes to the context, such as type of supervision (where
there are no significant discipline specific correlations).

Across all divisions students express uniformity in their rating of their own performance.
They also express a high degree of satisfaction with their supervision and the overall
quality of their research experience, though this varies more by department.

These results show:


(a) that overall satisfaction with the research experience does not vary significantly by
division, college or type of supervision, but it is higher with higher frequency of
supervision meetings; and
(b) that students assessment of their acquisition of key skills is unrelated to their
division, college and type and frequency of supervision meetings.

The relations between student characteristics and research outcomes are shown in
Table 9. The magnitude of the same 15 relations are shown for each of the Arts and
Sciences samples in Table 9a.

Of all five outcomes and satisfaction items and scales, only self-rating shows variation
with gender for the group as a whole. This is consistent with the results from earlier
research described in Section 2.1.1. Male students rate themselves more highly than
female students on the self-rating scale of their research performance (a mean of 3.48
compared to a mean of 3.33). The difference is significant at p<0.01 and the effect size
is small. Separate analyses for Science and Arts show that male Arts students are
more satisfied with their supervision.

Table 9: Relations (effect size) between student characteristics and the five research outcome
variables

Outcomes of research Satisfaction with:


Student characteristics Self rating Skills Services Supervision Overall
Exper.
Gender small none none None none
Year of study none none none large medium
Hours per week on research none medium small small medium
N = 604-626. Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55

With year of study, satisfaction with research supervision and overall research
experience show significant differences for the whole group. Students in their first year
of doctoral study, compared to those who have been studying for more than four years,
were more satisfied with the quality of their research supervision (a mean of 4.19
compared to a mean of 3.63). Students in their first year of doctoral study, compared to
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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

those who have been studying for more than four years, are also more satisfied with
the quality of their research experience (a mean of 3.99 compared to a mean of 3.59).
Similar, but lesser associations are observed by year of study for each of the two-
cultures groups.

Table 9a: Relations (effect size) between student characteristics and the five research outcome
variables in Arts and Sciences

Outcomes of research Satisfaction with:


Student Self rating Skills Services Supervision Overall
character- Experience
istics
Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci Arts Sci
Gender small small none none none none small none none none
Year of study none none none none none none medium small medium none
Hours per none medium none medium none none none medium medium medium
week on
research
N = 315 (Arts) 298 (Sciences). Small effect size 0.2-0.35, medium 0.4-0.55, large >0.55

The amount of time students spend on research per week is related to the students
skills development scores as well as to all three overall ratings of satisfaction. The
students who spend 30 or less hours a week on their research are significantly less in
agreement about their skills attainment, and less satisfied with the quality of services
and facilities, the quality of supervision and the quality of their overall research
experience. Taking each of those items and scales in turn the students who spend 30
or less hours a week score less high on agreement of skills development than those
who spend either between 31-45 hours or more than 45 hours (a mean of 3.65
compared to means of 3.84 and 3.90 for the other two groups). The differences are
significant at p=0.000. They are less satisfied with the quality of the services and
facilities than those who spend either between 31-45 hours or more than 45 hours (a
mean of 3.54 compared to means of 3.81 for the other two groups). They are also less
satisfied with the quality of their research supervision than those who spend 31-45
hours (a mean of 3.90 compared to a mean of 4.13). The difference is significant at p=
0.028. Finally, they are less satisfied with the quality of their research experience than
those who spend either 31-45 hours or more than 45 hours (a mean of 3.56 compared
to means of 3.97 and 3.98). The differences are significant at p=0.000. Time spent on
research is a more important factor in the Sciences than in the Arts, and explains most
of the relations found in the group as a whole.

These results show that:


(a) Science students satisfaction with their overall research experience and with
supervision is related to the amount of time they have spent on their research.
Similar relations are found in the Arts for overall satisfaction only.
(b) Students satisfaction with research experience and skills acquisition are not
significantly related to gender or to year of study in either the Sciences or the Arts,
though there is a small relation between gender and supervision in the Arts, where
male students are more satisfied with their supervision.

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6. Perceived research environment and doctoral completion times

The time taken for doctoral students to complete their studies is an outcome indicator
related to the students perceived quality of the research environment. None of the
students in this study had completed their degrees at the time of writing this report,
however, completion times of the cohorts who began in Michaelmas term 1997 through
Trinity term 2001 (a total of 3203 students) have been calculated (including lapsed
students and those whose work did not satisfy the examiners) as a guide to current
divisional differences. Figure 6 below shows how average completion time (years =
terms/3) by division is inversely related to three sets of research environment scale
scores for the same division. A similar pattern is found with students overall
satisfaction with the quality of their research experience (item 39).

4.7

4.2
Supervision (score)
Dept Infrastr. (score)
3.7
Dept Climate (score)

3.2 Completion (years)

2.7
HUM LES MPS MED SS Univ

Figure 6: Relations between research environment scale scores and completion times by
division

Wright and Cochrane (2000) note that only the students discipline (not age; mode of
study (f/t or p/t); origin (home/EU/overseas student); sex; funding; class of first degree;
or university of first degree) was found to be a reliable predictor of completion time, in
their study of 3579 theses from the University of Birmingham. As with the University of
Oxford study, and with that of Bowen & Rudenstine (1992), they found that the success
rate was better in the Sciences. The main disciplinary differences attributed to this
variation appear in the areas of supervision and the extent to which students work in
groups or teams. The message in Figure 6 is that where students perceive a more
supportive departmental research environment such as in the Sciences disciplines (in
Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences), they complete their
studies in a shorter time, whereas completion times are longer in divisions where the
environment (mainly departmental infrastructure and intellectual climate) are perceived
as being less supportive.

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7. Students perceptions of their research environment and the RAE

The 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) suggested that there was variation
between Oxford departments in research. This section contains an analysis of the
question: do students in departments with high RAE ratings experience a different
research environment (as measured by the indicators used in this study) to students in
departments with lower RAE ratings?

The mean scores on the three overall satisfaction items (37-39) and four perceptions of
research environment scales (Departmental Infrastructure and Climate, General
Infrastructure, and College) for students in 5* 2001 RAE-rated departments (320) were
compared with the mean score of students in departments rated 4 and 5 by the RAE
(187). The items/scales where there are differences between the two RAE-rated
contexts are shown in Table 11. All the differences are statistically significant (at p<.01)
except students overall satisfaction with the quality of their supervision.

Table 11: Average score (and statistical significance, p) of students response to satisfaction
items (1-5 scale) and Departmental Infrastructure and Intellectual Climate scale scores in
departments with different 2001 RAE ratings.

Item / scale Department RAE p


4 or 5 5*
Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research supervision 3.92 4.09 0.071
Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research experience 3.74 3.96 0.006
Departmental infrastructure (scale score) 3.38 3.60 0.000
Departmental intellectual climate (scale score) 3.23 3.47 0.000

Table 11 shows that students in 5* RAE departments have higher average overall
satisfaction scores than students from departments rated 4 and 5 by the RAE. The
difference is statistically significant only in the case of students overall satisfaction with
their research experience.

The same analysis conducted with Departmental Infrastructure and Departmental


Intellectual Climate scale scores (bottom two rows of Table 11) shows statistically
significant differences between students responses in departments with different RAE
ratings. Students in 5* RAE departments have higher average overall scale scores for
departmental infrastructure support and for a supportive departmental intellectual
climate than students from departments rated 4 and 5 by the RAE.

The significance of these results is in confirming the capacity of these scales and items
to measure variation in research contexts.

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8. A research experience questionnaire for Oxford

A proposed Oxford Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire (OPREQ) is


presented in Annexe V. It contains 42 items, with 6 scales. It is suggested that the
questionnaire be sent electronically, every two years, to students in the final year of
their research programme, with the results being distributed through a website similar
to the OSCEQ (http://ceq.oucs.ox.ac.uk/).

The research supporting the selection of these items and scales is presented in an
earlier section (5) of this report. All the research environment perceptions scales
(Supervision, Departmental Intellectual Climate, Departmental Infrastructure,
Assessment and General Infrastructure) tested in this study, with the exception of
General Infrastructure, have shown significant variation by division, and that variation is
systematically related to the five research outcome indicators, to the Approaches to
Research scale, and as shown in Sections 6 and 7, to programme completion times
and RAE ratings. These five perceptions scales have been included as part of the
proposed OPREQ. The General Infrastructure items include perceptions of a variety of
components that are the responsibility of the university, such as libraries and enrolment
processes. They do not form a set to which individual students respond with any
consistency (as reflected in a scale alpha reliability of only 0.59), but they are retained
in the OPREQ, as individual items to provide information.

The full set of items also includes one overall satisfaction item and a Transferable Skills
Development scale with items linked to the Joint Statement of Skills Training
Requirements (JSSTR) (Research Councils UK, 2001). The College Support scale
tested in this study showed significant variation between colleges, but there is very little
relation between students assigned college and the research process or outcome
variables. The recommended OPREQ therefore contains only an overall satisfaction
with college item. Finally, three items on aspects of the research environment that may
effect time spent on research (awareness of teaching opportunities, finances and other
responsibilities) are included to monitor these areas.

This inventory is expected to show meaningful differences between divisions, as shown


for three of the perceptions scales in Figure 7, but the best use of it will be in monitoring
changes over time brought about through the introduction of planned improvements.

The following sections summarise the research behind the proposed OPREQ items and
scales.

8.1 Supervision, departmental infrastructure and departmental intellectual


climate

Scores on Supervision, Departmental Infrastructure and Departmental Intellectual


Climate scales, by division and Continuing Education for the whole university, are
shown in Figure 7. The items used to make up these scales are shown in Annexe II,
Table C.

Students agreement with the extent of their supervisory support is high and relatively
uniform, with statistically significant differences only between the extremes of the
range. Infrastructure support in the departments and a supportive departmental
intellectual climate vary noticeably (and statistically significantly) across the divisions,
being highest in Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences in the case
of both scales.

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

3.8

3.6 Supervision

3.4 Dept Infrastruct


Dept Climate
3.2

3
HUM LES MPS MED SS CE Univ

Figure 7: Variation in Supervision, Departmental Infrastructure and Departmental


Intellectual Climate scales by division

8.2 College support

The following eight items were used to construct a scale to gauge College Support.

College Support (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.81)


40. My college provides opportunities for social contact with other postgraduate students
41. I feel integrated into my college community
42. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my college
44. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively encouraged in my college
45. In my college I feel I am a part of a community of scholars in my subject area
46. Support from college officers (e.g. welfare, accommodation) is available when I need it.
47. I have access to appropriate general academic support (e.g Tutor for Graduates) in my college.
48. I have appropriate support from my College Advisor

Each students mean response to all eight items was used to compute a College
Support scale score, and the average scores for the 27 colleges where a response
from over 10 students was received are shown in Figure 8. The figure shows that
perceived support from college varies considerably across the colleges with scores on
the five-point scale ranging from under 3.0 to over 4.0, though the majority are around
3.2-3.6. This is a statistically significant variation, but as noted above, this variation
does not translate into students overall satisfaction with their research experience:
relations between allocated college and overall satisfaction show no significant
difference. For this reason, and because most colleges already collect a range of
information from graduate students, it is suggested that the OPREQ contain only an
overall college satisfaction item, rather than a College Support scale.

College support score (1-5)


4.2
4
3.8
3.6
3.4
3.2
3
2.8
2.6
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Figure 8: Variation in College Support scale by college (for 27 colleges where n>10)

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Information on students responses to each of the eight items in this scale is given in
Annexe I, Table A.

8.3 Satisfaction items

Three overall satisfaction items were used in the study to investigate satisfaction with
the quality of services and facilities, supervision, and overall experience. In order to
keep the inventory short, only the total research experience item is recommended for
use in the OPREQ: Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research experience.
The results for this item by division and Continuing Education are shown in Table 12.

Table 12: Mean scores (and standard deviations) for overall satisfaction item (Item 39) by
division and Continuing Education

Division n mean sd
HUM 145 3.85 1.01
LES 88 3.70 .89
MPS 170 3.95 .72
MED 100 3.94 .98
SS 107 3.79 .96
CE 13 3.54 .97

The 42 items suggested for use in the OPREQ do not clash with questions currently
asked in departmental questionnaires, nor do they address all aspects of the students
research experience, but they do include all the areas found in this study to be related
to the quality of the outcome of the students programme (as measured in this study).
Interventions aimed at changing students perceptions of these areas are more likely to
lead to enhanced research experience than a focus on areas that are not related to
outcomes.

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9. PGR students experience of the Roberts skills agenda

Only 3.5% of doctoral students at Oxford disagree that developing a wider range of
skills (such as communication and team-working) is a valuable part of their research
programme (Annexe I, Table A). This is one third of the number of students who are
dissatisfied with the quality of their supervision.

The students self-report of the extent to which they consider they have attained the
range of skills is high. Table 13 shows the responses to the seven skills items used in
this study.

Table 13: Skills development items and student responses

Questionnaire item
n m sd %SD %D %N %A %SA

4. I have developed an awareness of the wider 626 3.85 .843 1.1 6.5 17.4 55.6 19.3
research community in my field

7. My postgraduate research studies have helped 623 3.65 .892 1.4 9.0 27.4 47.0 15.1
me to develop a range of communication skills

9. My postgraduate research studies have helped to


621 3.47 .956 2.9 13.5 28.3 44.3 11.0
develop my awareness of what I need to manage my
own career progression

11. As a result of my research, I have developed the 624 3.29 1.047 4.6 19.6 29.5 35.3 11.1
ability to work collaboratively with other researchers

14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills 626 4.19 .699 0.2 1.4 11.5 53.2 33.7

17. As a result of my postgraduate research studies, 617 3.67 .915 1.8 9.1 25.4 47.3 16.4
I feel confident about managing a research project

30. As a result of my research, I have developed the 622 4.10 .808 0.8 3.5 12.7 51.0 32.0
ability to learn independently
m=mean, sd=standard deviation, SD=Strongly disagree, D=disagree, N=neutral, A=agree,
SA=strongly agree

These seven items are used to explore students responses to a part of each of the
Joint Statement of Skills Training Requirements (Research Councils UK, 2001) skills
areas as in Table 14.

Table 14: Questionnaire item numbers and Joint Statement of Skills Training Requirements
(JSSTR) (Research Councils UK, 2001) skills areas

Item JSSTR skills area Code


number
4 Research Environment B
7 Communication Skills E
9 Career Management G
11 Networking and Team-working F
14 Research Skills and Techniques A
17 Research Management C
30 Personal Effectiveness D

In two areas (Item 11: attainment of the ability to work collaboratively with other
researchers, and Item 9: developing an awareness of what is needed to manage my
own career progression) the percentage of those who disagree is around 20%. Working
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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

collaboratively with other researchers is very different between the Sciences and the
Arts, with only 9% of Science students disagreeing compared with 37% of Arts
students. In the other five areas, the disagreeing percentage is lower and nearer to
10% or less. The percentages of students who agree that they have attained these
skills ranges from around 50% to 80%.

Students in the different years of their doctoral studies do not describe differently the
extent to which they have attained these skills. This may be due in part to the recent
introduction of programmes such as UKGrad. Of the other established research context
and student characteristic variables (type of supervision, frequency of meetings,
college, gender and time spent on research), only variation in the amount of time
students say they spent on research is related to variation in skills attainment, with
students who describe spending 30 or less hours per week on their research describing
less agreement with skills attainment than those who spend more than 30 hours per
week on research.

How students perceive their research environment is also related to their experience of
skills acquisition. As shown in Table 5 (Section 5.0) the Skills Development scale
scores correlate moderately strongly with perceptions of the Departmental Intellectual
Climate (r=0.49), Departmental Infrastructure (0.35), General Infrastructure (0.37) and
Supervision (0.35).

I have been helped considerably by the Facultys Graduate Research Skills


sessions, which have generally been appropriately designed and well run. My
only concern is that these sessions would ideally be supplemented by similar
conversations with my supervisor. At the moment I tend to assume that my
supervisor does not really consider it to be his job to talk to me about study skills,
methods and strategies etc, as opposed to talking about literature and ideas. I
would find it enormously useful if supervisors were actively encouraged to broach
more practical subjects of conversation with their students. (Humanities First
Year)

Students also see the acquisition of a wider range of skills (as in the Joint Statement of
Skills Training Requirements list (Research Councils UK, 2001) Table 14) as being a
valuable part of their research (Item 69 mean = 4.01), with 4.8% saying it did not apply
to them, but only 3.5% of the rest disagreeing that these skills constitute a valuable part
of their research programme.

Re: Q69 [I consider that developing a wider range of skills is a valuable part of
my research programme] These would be useful if they were offered to graduate
students! There seems to be a complete lack of training in professional/
teaching/transferable skills in Oxford. I find it staggering, and yet the university
seems so complacent about the quality of its programmes. I noted with disbelief
that in your [IAUL] recent illuminating publication two or three tiny pilot schemes
are reported as huge successes. As per usual, Oxford is years behind the times.
(Life and Environmental Sciences Third Year)

The degree to which these skills are seen as important by students does not vary by
students perceptions of departmental intellectual climate, but does vary significantly by
their conceptions of what is research, and how they go about it (Approaches to
research).

When analysed using each individual skills area (seven items) rather than the scale, a
similar result is found. An example is shown in Figure 9 for the relation between skills

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The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford

items attainment scores and perceived supportiveness of the departmental intellectual


climate.

4.3 Net- & teamworking


4.1 Career management
3.9
Communication
3.7
skills 3.5 Research environment
3.3 Research management
3.1 Personal effectiveness
2.9
Research skills
2.7
Low Medium High
Departmental Intellectual Climate

Figure 9: Variation in scores on individual skills items by intellectual climate

Figure 9 shows that the students who perceive the lowest departmental intellectual
climate support describe the lowest agreement with the achievement of all seven skills.
The students who perceive the highest departmental intellectual climate support
describe the highest agreement with the achievement of all seven skills.

Figure 10 shows the relations between the way students conceive of and approach
their research (Approach to Research), and the extent of their agreement with skills
attainment items.

4.4 Net- & teamworking


4.2 Career management
4 Communication
skills 3.8 Research environment
3.6
Research management
3.4
3.2 Personal effectiveness
3 Research skills
Low Medium High
Approach to Research scale score

Figure 10: Variation in scores on individual skills items by approach to research score

A similar pattern to that shown in Figure 9 is found in Figure 10. The students who
describe the least holistic approach to research describe the lowest agreement with the
achievement of all seven skills, and the students who describe a more holistic research
approach also describe the highest agreement with the achievement of all seven skills.

The correlations described above suggest that the development of research skills may
be assisted by also addressing and improving students perceptions of their research
environment, such as supervision, departmental intellectual climate and departmental
infrastructure, as well as raising awareness of variation in students conceptions of and
approaches to research.

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Another way to assist with the development of skills, as seen from the literature
(Section 2.3.2), is to give PGR students an opportunity to reflect on their skill
development. This could be carried out through the process of personal development
planning, or as the Humanities student quoted above seems to be suggesting, through
discussions with supervisor(s). This reflection could be complementary to the
discussions about approaches to research already suggested in Section 3 and would
enable students to see the research experience in a more holistic way.

Students views of the opportunities they have to develop teaching skills, and the extent
to which they are achieved, are addressed in the next section.

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10. The teaching experience of PGR students

Anderson & Swazey (1998) found that 71% of students expressed a desire to teach in
higher education as an important reason for deciding to go to graduate school. Over
80% of Oxford PGR students say they either possibly or definitely intend to pursue an
academic career.

In exploring the undergraduate learning experience at Oxford (Trigwell and Ashwin,


2003), observed that Students who had over 50% of their tutorials with graduate
students perceived that their teaching was good, but less good, when compared with
the response from students who had no tutorials with graduate students. For this same
group the goals of their courses were less clear, their workload and the way they were
assessed were perceived to be less appropriate, they experienced less collegiality and
perceived that they had less encouragement to develop their own academic interests.
They also had lower scores on a Conceptions of Learning scale, were less motivated,
and had lower levels of self-efficacy. Finally, they felt that they had less support in
improving skills in both oral and written communication and they reported not feeling as
confident about tackling unfamiliar problems. (p. 7) The commonality of the directions
of these relations point to the ability of the undergraduate students to assess
differences between teaching of less and more experienced teachers.

This effect of the teaching by graduate students suggests that support should be given
to the development of graduate students teaching skills, but other factors should also
be considered. Harland & Plangger (2004) found that teaching helped research
students in developing their personal identity as well as broadening their subject
knowledge and providing an opportunity for them to practice the language of their
disciplines. Whilst students experienced some downsides to teaching, such as feelings
that they had less autonomy and less support compared to their research, these
findings do suggest that opportunities to teach can be an important part of research
students experience. In Oxford, the Commission of Inquiry (1997a) found that
opportunities to teach appeared to be unequally distributed, with students who had first
degrees from Oxford nearly twice as likely to be involved in teaching compared to
students from other UK universities and from overseas. Some reasons for this
difference include tutors greater knowledge and trust of students that they have
previously taught and the students knowledge of teaching at Oxford.

The results from most of the teaching oriented items in this survey (type of teaching
conducted and items 61-64 and 69, Table 15 and Annexe I, Table B) show that the
context described in the Commission of Inquiry (1997a) continues to be the position in
Oxford. Research students see the acquisition of teaching skills as important, with 83%
of respondents agreeing that university teaching is an important skill to acquire (item
64, mean = 4.16). (This includes the 88 students (14%) who do not see themselves
pursuing an academic career.) However, only 55.3% of the respondents (346) agree
that teaching undergraduates at Oxford during their graduate studies is one of their
aims (item 63). A total of 287 indicate that they have taught at Oxford in the last year,
and 196 of them are among the 346 who expressed a desire to teach. Of the 346 who
aim to teach, 152 (44.6%) disagree that it is clear to them how to find out about
opportunities to teach at Oxford.

The 287 (45.8%) of respondents reporting that they had done any teaching in the last
year describe tutorial teaching as the most common form of teaching (done by 67% of
this group) (Annexe I, Table D). Laboratory teaching is conducted by 27.7% with the
next most common teaching form being classes or seminars (20.7%).

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Since only 88 students (14%) stated that they were not interested in pursuing an
academic career, many students are currently not able to get the experience that may
help them achieve their desired careers.

In fact, since doctor of course means teacher, I consider it scandalous that so


little emphasis is put on teaching as a central part of graduate work it is much
more important than research and as such needs to be recognised. (Humanities
Fourth Year)

66.5% of all students agree that teaching is likely to benefit rather than hinder their
research. This percentage rises to 87% once students with no ambition for an
academic career are excluded.

Table 15 explores the relations between aspects of teaching, three research


perceptions scales, Approach to Research and overall satisfaction.

Table 15: Relations (correlation co-efficients) between teaching items (61-64) and research
environment scales and outcomes

Item Super- Intellect Depart. Research Overall


vision Climate Infrastr. approach Satisfact.
61. It is clear to me how to find out about
opportunities for me to teach .09 .11 .15 .06 .11
undergraduates at Oxford
62. I consider that teaching under-graduate
students in my field is likely to benefit rather .04 .06 -.01 .13 .07
than hinder my research
63. Teaching undergraduates at Oxford
during my graduate studies is one of my .03 .07 -.05 .10 .02
aims
64. I see university teaching as an .07 .07 -.04 .13 .02
important skill to acquire
N=614-621; Bold (red) numbers are significant at p<.01

All the correlations in the table are small. There are few relations between teaching and
research. For the whole sample, research students who see teaching as benefiting
rather than hindering their research are more likely to report a more holistic approach to
research (r = 0.13; p = 0.002) (i.e. they see their research ideas as being part of a
bigger picture and something over which they have greater control). This view was not
uniformly held:

I feel that teaching undergrads affected my research too. I took on teaching jobs to
supplement my income but in hindsight realise that it did take more time than
expected. (Social Sciences, Fourth Year)

How clear students are about how to find out about opportunities to teach does vary
with perceptions of Departmental Intellectual Climate (r = 0.11; p = 0.006), but not by
approach to research. Where students experience a supportive intellectual
environment, they are more likely to say they are clear about how to find out about
teaching opportunities. Conversely, considering that teaching is likely to benefit
research does not vary with perceptions of departmental intellectual climate.

In interviews conducted in preparation for this study, PGR students described their
perceptions of the context in which they teach. Many of the areas described below
mirror the results described above.
Teaching is enjoyable and is seen to be valuable experience;

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There are tensions between research and teaching with more pressure coming
from research;
More opportunities for teaching development are desired;
There is a general lack of feedback on performance;
Being closer to students helps them to be more effective in their research;
There is an opaqueness in knowing how to get to teach;
The preparation time needed and pay offered is acceptable; and
More of a teaching social network is needed.

These results show that only about one half of the students who want to teach get an
opportunity, and that nearly one half of those who want to teach do not think it is clear
how to find out how to do so.

11. Other factors (funding, language )

Several other factors (funding, confusion caused by the Oxford system, and language
problems) emerged from the analysis of the students comments and their response to
related questionnaire items.

Half of the students surveyed agreed that they were concerned that their financial
situation might affect the quality of their research work (Item 51, Annexe I, Table A).
Atkinson, et al. (2004) found that the UK graduate students arriving from universities
other than Oxford or Cambridge are less frequently funded by Oxford-specific
scholarships.

My financial situation in the first 2 years obliged me to work to pay my studies.


This has taken significant time and effort that could have been applied directly to
my research project. (Life and Environmental Sciences, Second Year)

Funding I am effectively doing a full-time degree with part-time temporary


research contracts. This is the reality for many PG students who dont get
research council funding, but the university and dept. are totally unsupportive and I
feel like I am doing something wrong despite having hit all progress targets on
time so far. (Social Sciences, Second Year)

Nearly 60% say that the quality of their research is affected by other aspects of their life
that compete with their research time (Item 60, Annexe, I, Table A).

International students who were confused by the Oxford system, described their
situation as follows:

The system in Oxford is very much different and somewhat complicated for people
from outside and it would be always good if either departments or colleges could
explain this unique system clearly at the very beginning of the graduate course
(especially for the overseas students!) (Humanities, Third Year)

Items related to these areas are being retained on the proposed OPREQ (Section 8).

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Annexe I: Frequencies and means of questionnaire item responses

Table A: Research related items

Humanities Life and Maths and Medical Social Continuing


N Environmental Physical Sciences Sciences Education
% Sciences Sciences % %
% %
%

Division 626 23.3 14.2 27.2 16.0 17.3 2.1

1st 2nd 3rd 4th More than 4


N % % % % %

Year of Study 621 24.2 24.2 25.8 18.5 7.4

N Female Male
% %

Gender 626 46.0 54.0

Single Co-supervision Group


N % % %

Type of supervision 626 68.2 27.0 4.8

0-3 4-7 8 or more


N % % %

Meeting times per term with


624 43.3 27.4 29.2
supervisor

N College Accommodation Non-college


% Accommodation
%

Current Residence 620 43.7 56.3

30 or less 31-45 More than 45


N % % %

Hours per week spent on research 611 28.2 43.0 28.8

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Item N Mean S.D. Strongly Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly


Disagree Agree
% % % % %
1. The library facilities at Oxford support my
research 626 4.12 .903 1.4 5.4 10.7 45.0 37.4

2. I have access to a suitable working space


626 3.98 1.012 3.0 7.7 10.9 45.0 33.4

3. The department/faculty provides opportunities


for social contact with other postgraduate 626 3.41 1.061 5.0 15.2 27.6 38.2 14.1
students
4. I have developed an awareness of the wider
research community in my field 626 3.85 .843 1.1 6.5 17.4 55.6 19.3

5. My supervisor(s) make(s) a real effort to


understand difficulties I face 624 3.91 1.029 2.2 8.8 17.9 37.8 33.2

6. I am able to organise good access to


necessary equipment 621 3.75 .798 0.8 4.5 28.8 50.2 15.6

7. My postgraduate research studies have helped


me to develop a range of communication skills 623 3.65 .892 1.4 9.0 27.4 47.0 15.1

8. I feel integrated into the research community in


the department/faculty 626 3.19 1.097 6.1 23.5 26.7 33.1 10.7

9. My postgraduate research studies have helped


to develop my awareness of what I need to 621 3.47 .956 2.9 13.5 28.3 44.3 11.0
manage my own career progression

10. I have access to a common room or a similar


type of meeting place 626 4.00 .853 1.4 5.3 12.0 54.6 26.7

11. As a result of my research, I have developed


the ability to work collaboratively with other 624 3.29 1.047 4.6 19.6 29.5 35.3 11.1
researchers

12. I have good access to the technical support I


need 622 3.57 .936 2.1 11.1 28.5 44.2 14.1

13. Research supervision is available when I


need it 626 4.04 .948 1.6 7.2 11.7 44.4 35.1

14. My research has sharpened my analytical


skills 626 4.19 .699 0.2 1.4 11.5 53.2 33.7

15. The department/faculty provides opportunities


for me to become involved in the broader 620 3.45 .947 2.3 15.5 27.9 44.2 10.2
research culture

16. I feel that other postgraduate students in my


department/faculty are supportive 626 3.70 .860 1.1 7.3 27.5 48.2 15.8

17. As a result of my postgraduate research


studies, I feel confident about managing a 617 3.67 .915 1.8 9.1 25.4 47.3 16.4
research project

18. I am given good guidance in topic selection


and refinement 625 3.54 1.001 3.0 13.6 24.5 44.0 14.9

19. I have good access to computing facilities and


services in my department 623 3.77 1.007 3.9 7.1 20.5 45.4 23.1

20. I tend to feel isolated within this


department/faculty 617 2.69 1.143 14.7 34.5 23.8 20.4 6.5

21. In my research I consider it is more important


to find new ways of thinking than to develop 619 3.12 .835 1.1 20.7 48.9 23.7 5.5
research skills

22. My research supervision provides me with


helpful feedback on my progress 626 3.73 .998 2.2 11.8 17.7 46.8 21.4

23. Interaction with other postgraduate students is


actively encouraged in my department 623 3.17 1.029 6.3 18.8 35.3 31.3 8.3

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Item N Mean S.D. Strongly Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly


Disagree Agree
% % % % %
24. A good seminar programme for postgraduate
students is provided 626 3.47 1.061 5.1 14.7 22.4 44.1 13.7

25. The research ambience in the department


stimulates my work 623 3.18 .943 4.2 18.3 39.5 31.8 6.3

26. I have received good guidance in my literature


search 624 3.23 1.001 4.3 19.1 34.9 32.5 9.1

27. I manage to find conditions for studying which


allow me to get on with my work easily 623 3.62 .894 2.2 9.5 24.4 52.0 11.9

28. There is appropriate financial support for


research activities in the department 622 2.99 1.221 15.0 19.9 25.9 29.3 10.0

29. I feel that this department provides a


supportive working environment 622 3.47 .882 2.3 10.8 33.4 44.7 8.8

30. As a result of my research, I have developed


the ability to learn independently 622 4.10 .808 0.8 3.5 12.7 51.0 32.0

31. I feel respected as a fellow researcher within


my department/faculty 623 3.43 .929 3.0 11.7 34.2 41.1 10.0

32. The department administration is effective in


supporting my research 624 3.41 .996 5.8 9.9 32.5 41.5 10.3

33. The university administration is effective in


supporting my research 622 3.11 .900 5.3 13.7 51.1 24.1 5.8

34. I was satisfied with the admission and


enrolment processes 625 3.65 .874 2.7 7.4 23.4 55.4 11.2

35. The department provides clear,


comprehensive and up-to-date Notes of 623 3.32 .962 4.5 14.4 32.9 40.8 7.4
Guidance

36. Complaints handling procedures are clear to


me 625 2.90 .906 7.0 23.0 44.5 23.4 2.1

37. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the


services and facilities 624 3.73 .893 1.6 10.6 15.4 57.9 14.6

38. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my


research supervision 625 4.01 1.021 2.6 8.6 10.1 42.4 36.3

39. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my


research experience 623 3.85 .909 1.6 8.2 15.4 52.8 22.0

40. My college provides opportunities for social


contact with other postgraduate students 626 4.27 .776 0.6 2.4 9.3 45.2 42.5

41. I feel integrated into my college community


626 3.47 1.292 9.1 16.0 21.2 26.0 27.6

42. I have good access to computing facilities and


services in my college 625 3.61 1.063 3.8 11.7 25.8 37.4 21.3

43. My college offers some financial support for


my research activities 624 3.34 1.211 10.4 15.4 19.6 39.3 15.4

44. Interaction with other postgraduate students is


actively encouraged in my college 625 3.87 1.006 2.1 7.7 22.4 37.0 30.9

45. In my college I feel I am a part of a community


of scholars in my subject area 625 2.62 1.206 18.2 35.5 21.6 15.7 9.0

46. Support from college officers (e.g. welfare,


accommodation) is available when I need it 622 3.66 .926 3.1 6.6 27.7 46.9 15.8

47. I have access to appropriate general


academic support (e.g. Tutor for Graduates) in 625 3.50 .997 5.4 9.6 25.8 48.0 11.2
my college

48. I have appropriate support from my College


Advisor 624 3.16 1.236 14.3 12.7 30.6 28.2 14.3

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Item N Mean S.D. Strongly Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly


Disagree Agree
% % % % %
49. I see my research as contributing in some
way to big picture issues 625 4.02 .841 1.6 4.0 12.6 54.1 27.7

50. I usually try to discuss with others new ideas I


have in my research 625 3.81 .862 1.1 8.5 16.5 56.5 17.4

51. I am concerned that my financial situation


might affect the quality of my research work 625 3.27 1.293 9.9 23.0 18.1 28.2 20.8

52. As I develop my own research-informed


opinion I find myself challenging the opinion of 624 3.73 .858 1.1 7.9 23.4 51.9 15.7
others including that of my supervisor(s)

53. When Im working on a research topic, I try to


see in my own mind how all the ideas fit together 624 4.21 .651 0.3 0.8 8.7 58.5 31.7

54. Ideas that arise in my research often set me


off on chains of thought of my own 623 4.09 .765 0.5 2.7 14.0 52.8 30.0

55. I concentrate most of my research effort on


technical and/or descriptive processes 622 2.92 .967 5.0 32.5 31.2 28.0 3.4

56. In my research I concentrate on just those


areas that are of direct relevance to my topic 625 2.83 1.028 6.2 40.2 22.6 26.9 4.2

57. Often I find myself wondering whether the


work I am doing here is really worthwhile 626 2.82 1.255 17.1 28.0 20.9 24.0 10.1

58. It is important to me that my research is well


integrated with existing knowledge and topics in 624 3.99 .767 0.2 5.0 13.9 57.4 23.6
the field

59. I feel as if I do not have sufficient control over


the direction of my research 624 2.42 .970 14.9 45.4 25.0 12.2 2.6

60. The quality of my research work is affected by


the amount of time I need to spend on aspects of 620 3.44 1.083 3.1 21.9 18.2 41.6 15.2
my life other than research

70. Indicate, with a cross on the horizontal line,


your rating of the quality of your own research 618 3.41 .687
work

n m sd NA SD D N A SA
% % % % % %
65. The requirements of the final
assessments (thesis and oral 621 3.66 1.06 1.1 2.1 13.7 14.3 50.2 18.5
examination) are clear to me
66. Transfer of Status (from PRS
to MLitt/DPhil) processes are fair 622 3.58 1.25 6.3 1.8 5.3 18.6 50.5 17.5

67. The requirements of Transfer


of Status are clear 622 3.43 1.25 4.2 3.7 14.3 15.6 47.4 14.8

68. Sufficient support is available


for Transfer of Status 616 3.42 1.23 5.2 1.8 12.0 22.4 44.0 14.6

69. I consider that developing a


wider range of skills (such as
communication, research
management, personal
620 4.01 1.20 4.8 0.6 2.9 11.0 41.6 39.0
effectiveness, networking and
team-working, career
management) is a valuable part of
my research programme
m=mean, sd=standard deviation, NA=not applicable; SD=strongly disagree; D=disagree; N=neutral; A=agree; SA=
strongly agree

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Table B: Aspects of Teaching by Graduate Students

yes no
N % %

Teaching, or recently taught


626 45.4 54.6
undergraduate students

yes possible no dont know


N % % % %

Plan to pursue an academic


620 43.9 36.6 13.9 5.6
career

Item SD D N A SA
n m sd
% % % % %

61. It is clear to me how to find out about


opportunities for me to teach undergraduates at 621 2.85 1.231 15.1 30.9 15.9 30.0 8.1
Oxford

62. I consider that teaching undergraduate


students in my field is likely to benefit rather than 621 3.76 .950 1.3 9.8 22.4 44.1 22.4
hinder my research

63. Teaching undergraduates at Oxford during my


graduate studies is one of my aims 617 3.52 1.127 4.5 15.9 24.3 33.9 21.4

64. I see university teaching as an important skill


to acquire 621 4.16 .854 0.8 4.2 12.4 43.6 39.0

m=mean, sd=standard deviation, SD= strongly disagree; D=disagree; N=neutral; A=agree; SA= strongly agree

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Table C: Usual research work space

Location N (whole) % Arts % Sci %


Department 308 49.4 14.1 87.2
Home 124 19.9 35.8 2.7
Home & Library 58 9.3 18.2 0.0
Home & Department 45 7.2 7.3 6.4
Library 29 4.7 9.9 0.0
College 19 3.0 5.4 0.3
Home & College 8 1.3 2.2 0.3
Home & Department & Library 7 1.1 1.9 0.3
College & Department 7 1.1 1.3 1.0
College & Library 1 .2 0.3 0.0
Home & College & Library 2 .3 0.6 0.0
Data sources 2 .3 0.6 0.0
Home & College & Department 1 .2 0.3 0.0
Library & Department 4 .6 0.6 0.7
Home & College & Department & Library 2 .3 0.6 0.0
Department & Home & Other 1 .2 0.3 0.0
Department & Other 2 .3 0.0 0.7
Home & Work 2 .3 0.0 0.3
Other 1 .2 0.3 0.0
Total 623 100.0
Missing 3
Total 626

Table D: Type of teaching

Frequency Percent
Tutorials 122 42.5
Laboratory Demonstrating 51 17.8
Tutorials & Classes 27 9.4
Classes/Seminars 25 8.7
Tutorials & Demonstrating 21 7.3
Tutorials & Lectures 10 3.5
Lectures 7 2.4
Demonstrating & Classes 1 .3
Tutorials & Demonstrating & Classes 2 .7
Undergraduate projects 3 1.0
Clinical teaching 1 .3
Tutorials & Demonstrating & Lectures 1 .3
Tutorials & Demonstrating & Project supervision 1 .3
Other 2 .7
Lectures & Classes & Tutorials 3 1.0
Demonstrating & UG projects 2 .7
Tutorials & Revision sessions 2 .7
Tutorials & Seminars & Lectures 1 .3
Tutorials & Seminars 1 .3
Tutorials & Clinical Teaching 1 .3
Field trips 1 .3
Demonstrating & Tutorials & Field trips 1 .3
Tutorials & UG project 1 .3
Total 287 100.0
Not teaching 339
Total 626

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Annexe II: Scales

Table A: Mean scale scores and distributions (university-wide) of response for each
scale in ascending mean order (approximately 626 respondents)

Scale Mean SD % Disagree* % Neutral* % Agree*


Dept. Intellect. Climate 3.38 .69 24.0 6.5 69.5
College Support 3.52 .71 19.5 5.9 74.6
Dept. Infrastructure 3.54 .60 16.1 4.3 79.6
General Infrastructure 3.57 .51 9.1 8.0 82.9
Aware of Assessment 3.67 .79 14.7 9.0 76.3
Supervision 3.69 .79 15.7 5.3 79.0
Skills Development 3.80 .56 6.9 2.7 90.4
Approach to Research 3.84 .53 4.0 7.5 88.5
%Agree: Scale scores >3.0; %Neutral: Scale score = 3.0; %Disagree: Scale scores <3.0

Table B: Scale means (and standard deviations) by division

Scale HUM LES MPS MED SS


Dept. Intellect. Climate 3.28 (.73) 3.16 (.71) 3.59 (.55) 3.57 (.70) 3.21 (.68)
College Support 3.68 (.66) 3.39 (.75) 3.52 (.70) 3.33 (.68) 3.54 (.71)
Dept. Infrastructure 3.26 (.62) 3.42 (.62) 3.79 (.48) 3.82 (.55) 3.39 (.54)
General Infrastructure 3.59 (.52) 3.47 (.55) 3.61 (.46) 3.55 (.44) 3.54 (.56)
Aware of Assessment 3.64 (.83) 3.58 (.84) 3.81 (.72) 3.67 (.72) 3.54 (.86)
Supervision 3.88 (.78) 3.60 (.83) 3.68 (.73) 3.61 (.85) 3.62 (.78)
Skills Development 3.76 (.53) 3.76 (.55) 3.83 (.57) 3.93 (.53) 3.76 (.55)
Approach to Research 3.89 (.53) 3.93 (.52) 3.72 (.50) 3.81 (.56) 3.89 (.52)

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Table C: Scale and group items and reliabilities (Cronbach alpha)

GENERAL ITEMS
Supervision (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.86) (Arts 0.85; Sci 0.86)
5. My supervisor(s) make(s) a real effort to understand difficulties I face
13. Research supervision is available when I need it
18. I am given good guidance in topic selection and refinement
22. My research supervision provides me with helpful feedback on my progress
26. I have received good guidance in my literature search

Skill Development (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.76) (Arts 0.76; Sci 0.79)
4. I have developed an awareness of the wider research community in my field
7. My postgraduate research studies have helped me to develop a range of communication
skills
9. My postgraduate research studies have helped to develop my awareness of what I need to
manage my own career progression
11. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to work collaboratively with other
researchers
14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills
17. As a result of my postgraduate research studies, I feel confident about managing a research
project
30. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to learn independently

Departmental Intellectual Climate (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.88) (Arts 0.88; Sci 0.87)
3. The department/faculty provides opportunities for social contact with other postgraduate
students
8. I feel integrated into the research community in the department/faculty
15. The department/faculty provides opportunities for me to become involved in the broader
research culture
16. I feel that other postgraduate students in my department/faculty are supportive
20. I tend to feel isolated within this department/faculty (reversed)
23. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively encouraged in my department
24. A good seminar programme for postgraduate students is provided
25. The research ambience in the department stimulates my work
29. I feel that this department provides a supportive working environment
31. I feel respected as a fellow researcher within my department/faculty

General Infrastructure (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.59) (Arts 0.62; Sci 0.53)
1. The library facilities at Oxford support my research
10. I have access to a common room or a similar type of meeting place
27. I manage to find conditions for studying which allow me to get on with my work easily
33. The university administration is effective in supporting my research
34. I was satisfied with the admission and enrolment processes
36. Complaints handling procedures are clear to me

Departmental Infrastructure (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.72) (Arts 0.68; Sci 0.67)
2. I have access to a suitable working space
6. I am able to organise good access to necessary equipment
12. I have good access to the technical support I need
19. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my department
28. There is appropriate financial support for research activities in the department
32. The department administration is effective in supporting my research

Overall Satisfaction (response range 1-5)


37. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the services and facilities
38. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research supervision
39. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research experience

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VALIDATION AND EXTRA ITEMS

College Support (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.81) (Arts 0.81; Sci 0.82)
40. My college provides opportunities for social contact with other postgraduate students
41. I feel integrated into my college community
42. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my college
44. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively encouraged in my college
45. In my college I feel I am a part of a community of scholars in my subject area
46. Support from college officers (e.g. welfare, accommodation) is available when I need it.
47. I have access to appropriate general academic support (e.g Tutor for Graduates) in my
college
48. I have appropriate support from my College Advisor

Approach to Research (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.68) (Arts 0.67; Sci 0.70)
49. I see my research as contributing in some way to big picture issues
50. I usually try to discuss with others new ideas I have in my research
53. When Im working on a research topic, I try to see in my own mind how all the ideas fit
together
54. Ideas that arise in my research often set me off on chains of thought of my own
57. Often I find myself wondering whether the work I am doing here is really worthwhile (R)
58. It is important to me that my research is well integrated with existing knowledge and topics in
the field
59. I feel as if I do not have sufficient control over the direction of my research (R)

Awareness of Assessment (response range 1-6) (alpha=0.84) (Arts 0.83; Sci 0.84)
65.The requirements of the final assessments (thesis and oral examination) are clear to me
66. Transfer of Status (from PRS to MLitt/DPhil) processes are fair
67. The requirements of Transfer of Status are clear
68. Sufficient support is available for Transfer of Status

Items not in scales

21. In my research I consider it is more important to find new ways of thinking than to develop
research skills
35. The department provides clear, comprehensive and up-to-date Notes of Guidance
43. My college offers some financial support for my research activities
51. I am concerned that my financial situation might affect the quality of my research work
52. As I develop my own research-informed opinion I find myself challenging the opinion of others
including that of my supervisor(s)
55. I concentrate most of my research effort on technical and/or descriptive processes (R)
56. In my research I concentrate on just those areas that are of direct relevance to my topic (R)
60. The quality of my research work is affected by the amount of time I need to spend on aspects
of my life other than research
61. It is clear to me how to find out about opportunities for me to teach undergraduates at Oxford
62. I consider that teaching undergraduate students in my field is likely to benefit rather than
hinder my research
63. Teaching undergraduates at Oxford during my graduate studies is one of my aims
64. I see university teaching as an important skill to acquire
69. I consider that developing a wider range of skills (such as communication, research
management, personal effectiveness, networking and teamworking, career management) is a
valuable part of my research programme (scale 1-6)
70. Indicate, with a cross on the horizontal line, your rating of the quality of your own research
work (poor/fair/good/very good/outstanding)

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Figure A: Research Approach (RESINTSA) score distributions for Arts (top) and Sciences
(bottom)

RESINTSA
CULTURES: 1.00 arts
60

50

40

30

20
Frequency

10

0
7.00 10.00 12.00 14.00 16.00 18.00 20.00
9.00 11.00 13.00 15.00 17.00 19.00

RESINTSA

RESINTSA
CULTURES: 2.00 science
60

50

40

30

20
Frequency

10

0
6.00 9.00 11.00 13.00 15.00 17.00 19.00
8.00 10.00 12.00 14.00 16.00 18.00 20.00

RESINTSA

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Annexe III: Departmental information

Information for departments on scale scores and overall satisfaction have been circulated to
Directors for Graduate Studies.

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Annexe IV: Completion times (total terms by commencement year by


division)

How long it takes doctoral students to complete their research degrees (i.e. the number
of terms taken to submit their theses) is a research outcomes indicator. As the
questionnaire for this study was administered to current (2005) research students, none
of the students in the sample had completed their degrees. It was therefore decided to
look at the characteristics of cohorts of research students for the academic years 1997-
98 to 2000-01, as students who had started in these years would be more likely to have
submitted their theses. Using data supplied by the Student Records Office at the
University of Oxford for 3203 students, an average number of terms to submission of
thesis was calculated for each division as follows:

1997 1998 1999 2000


HUM 13.90 14.41 14.18 13.22
LES 13.17 13.60 13.39 12.49
MPS 11.92 11.98 11.87 12.14
MS 12.19 12.11 11.96 11.74
SS 14.78 14.17 12.50 13.07

These completion times, by division, for 4 cohorts, are shown graphically below:

15

14.5

14
Hum
13.5 LES
13 MPS
MedSc
12.5
SocSc
12

11.5

11
1997 1998 1999 2000

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Annexe V: Proposed OPREQ

The information in this Annexe is included as an example of a PREQ for Oxford.

To PGR Students in final year

Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire

I am writing to ask you to participate in a survey. The aim of the survey is to gather
information to further inform the decisions made about the research environment in the
Collegiate University. The questionnaire will take about ten minutes to complete and
will be of use to future Oxford students.

The questionnaire has been designed for use across the University. If your research
programme is in an area of the University that does not have departments, please read
any items with that wording as referring to your faculty or sub-faculty.

The statistical information based on your returned questionnaire will be made available
to your faculty or department for consideration as an additional form of feedback and
used by the University to monitor the experience of research students. The information
supplied will be processed in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. The forms
will be destroyed at the end of the process and only the anonymized data will remain
for statistical analysis.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education)

Please return completed forms in the enclosed envelope by


FRIDAY xxth MAY 2006

DO NOT FOLD THIS QUESTIONNAIRE

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Beside each statement please 5 the box that FOR OFFICE USE ONLY
Strongly Strongly
most accurately reflects your research experience Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Agree
1. The library facilities at Oxford support my research
2. I have access to a suitable working space
3. The department/faculty provides opportunities for social contact with other

postgraduate students
4. I have developed an awareness of the wider research community in my field
5. My supervisor(s) make(s) a real effort to understand difficulties I face
6. I am able to organise good access to necessary equipment
7. My postgraduate research studies have helped me to develop a range of

communication skills
8. I have had the opportunities I desired to learn how to teach
9. My postgraduate research studies have helped to develop my awareness of what

I need to manage my own career progression
10. I have access to a common room or a similar type of meeting place
11. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to work collaboratively

with other researchers
12. I have good access to the technical support I need
13. Research supervision is available when I need it
14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills
15. The department/faculty provides opportunities for me to become involved in the

broader research culture
16. I feel that other postgraduate students in my department/faculty are supportive
17. As a result of my postgraduate research studies, I feel confident about managing

a research project
18. I am given good guidance in topic selection and refinement
19. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my department
20. I tend to feel isolated within this department/faculty
21.The requirements of the final assessments (thesis and oral examination) are

clear to me
22. My research supervision provides me with helpful feedback on my progress
23. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively encouraged in my

department
24. A good seminar programme for postgraduate students is provided
25. The research ambience in the department stimulates my work
26. I have received good guidance in my literature search
27. I manage to find conditions for studying which allow me to get on with my work

easily
28. There is appropriate financial support for research activities in the department
29. I feel that this department provides a supportive working environment
30. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to learn independently
31. I feel respected as a fellow researcher within my department/faculty
32. The department administration is effective in supporting my research
33. The university administration is effective in supporting my research
34. I was satisfied with the admission and enrolment processes
35. I am concerned that my financial situation might affect the quality of my research

work
36. Complaints handling procedures are clear to me
37. The requirements of Transfer of Status are clear
38. Sufficient support is available for Transfer of Status
39. The quality of my research work is affected by the amount of time I need to

spend on aspects of my life other than research
40. It is clear to me how to find out about opportunities for me to teach

undergraduates at Oxford
41. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the support from my college
42. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research experience

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OPREQ Scales and Items

Supervision (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.86)


5. My supervisor(s) make(s) a real effort to understand difficulties I face
13. Research supervision is available when I need it
18. I am given good guidance in topic selection and refinement
22. My research supervision provides me with helpful feedback on my progress
26. I have received good guidance in my literature search

Skill Development (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.76)


4. I have developed an awareness of the wider research community in my field
7. My postgraduate research studies have helped me to develop a range of communication skills
8. I have had the opportunities I desired to learn how to teach
9. My postgraduate research studies have helped to develop my awareness of what I need to manage my own
career progression
11. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to work collaboratively with other researchers
14. My research has sharpened my analytical skills
17. As a result of my postgraduate research studies, I feel confident about managing a research project
30. As a result of my research, I have developed the ability to learn independently

Departmental Intellectual Climate (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.86)


3. The department/faculty provides opportunities for social contact with other postgraduate students
15. The department/faculty provides opportunities for me to become involved in the broader research culture
16. I feel that other postgraduate students in my department/faculty are supportive
20. I tend to feel isolated within this department/faculty (reversed)
23. Interaction with other postgraduate students is actively encouraged in my department
24. A good seminar programme for postgraduate students is provided
25. The research ambience in the department stimulates my work
29. I feel that this department provides a supportive working environment
31. I feel respected as a fellow researcher within my department/faculty

General Infrastructure items (response range 1-5)


1. The library facilities at Oxford support my research
10. I have access to a common room or a similar type of meeting place
27. I manage to find conditions for studying which allow me to get on with my work easily
33. The university administration is effective in supporting my research
34. I was satisfied with the admission and enrolment processes
36. Complaints handling procedures are clear to me

Departmental Infrastructure (response range 1-5) (alpha=0.72)


2. I have access to a suitable working space
6. I am able to organise good access to necessary equipment
12. I have good access to the technical support I need
19. I have good access to computing facilities and services in my department
28. There is appropriate financial support for research activities in the department
32. The department administration is effective in supporting my research

Overall Satisfaction (response range 1-5)


41. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the support from my college
42. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my research experience

Awareness of Assessment (response range 1-6) (alpha=0.77)


21.The requirements of the final assessments (thesis and oral examination) are clear to me
37. The requirements of Transfer of Status are clear
38. Sufficient support is available for Transfer of Status

Items not in scales


35. I am concerned that my financial situation might affect the quality of my research work
39. The quality of my research work is affected by the amount of time I need to spend on aspects of my life
other than research
40. It is clear to me how to find out about opportunities for me to teach undergraduates at Oxford

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Annexe VI: Study methodology

The study was conducted in two phases. The first focused on testing existing
instruments (such as the Postgraduate Research Experience Questionnaire (GCCA &
ACER, (2002)) and on identifying areas of research interest. This phase was largely
qualitative, and involved consultation and interviews with students and staff of the
university. Interviews were conducted with 33 students (see Annexe VIII for the
interview schedule) who were also asked to test some of the proposed questionnaire
items.

A questionnaire (Annexe VII) was developed from the material gathered in this first
phase and from a university-wide consultation process. In week 4 of Trinity Term 2005,
it was mailed to a sample of graduate students across the University of Oxford.

A total of 4096 postgraduate students were in the student database (Students Records
Office at the University of Oxford) in May 2005. In preparing the sample, the following
were excluded:

Students who had suspended their course;


Students studying for a MSc, MSt or MLitt, due to the small numbers involved;
Students with Recognised Student Status.

That left 3855 postgraduate students in the population from which a sample of 1 in 5,
as had been done by the Commission of Inquiry (Commission of Inquiry, 1997b p.400)
was selected. The sample was stratified by Department, Status (DPhil or Probationary
Research Student (PRS)), College and Gender. This gave a sample size of 756. Email
was used to contact students who had not returned their questionnaire within two
weeks of receiving it. A total of 626 students (82.8%) returned the questionnaire. The
proportions of the constituencies in the response set closely match those in the full
sample. Some demographic details of respondents are shown in Annexe I.

The data were analysed using Statistical Package for Social Scientists (SPSS).

The capacity of the scales and items to measure variation in research environments
was tested by comparing the results with two external indicators: completion times
(Section 6) and RAE ratings (Section 7).

The validity of the relational approach to the research adopted in this study has been
tested using cluster analyses. For the whole sample, a hierarchical cluster analysis
(Wards method) was calculated using all seven scales to determine cluster occupancy,
which maximises the differences between clusters. The pattern of variables in each
cluster then indicates the relations, for that group of students, between the variables.
The cluster analysis was followed by between-group contrasts using cluster
membership to form the groups. Mean (and standard deviation) cluster scale z-scores
for Departmental Intellectual Climate, Departmental Infrastructure, General
Infrastructure, Supervision Approach to Research scales and Overall Satisfaction and
Skills Development Scales by cluster for the whole sample and the two-cultures are
shown below in Tables A-C).

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Table A: Cluster analysis of perceptions of research environment, approach to research


and outcomes variables (whole sample, n=623) (z-scores and s.d.)

Cluster 1 Cluster 2
Variables N = 212 N = 411
Departmental Intellectual Climate .72 (.72) -.37 (.92)
Departmental Infrastructure .76 (.67) -.40 (.91)
General Infrastructure .76 (.71) -.40 (.90)
Supervision .69 (.62) -.36 (.97)

Approach to Research .68 (.80) -.35 (.91)

Overall satisfaction .74 (.58) -.38 (.96)


Skills Development .71 (.68) -.37 (.94)

Table B: Cluster analysis of perceptions of research environment, approach to research


and outcomes variables (Arts, n=305) (z-scores and s.d.)

Cluster 1 Cluster 2
Variables N = 153 N = 152
Departmental Intellectual Climate .47 (.81) -.47 (.95)
Departmental Infrastructure .46 (.83) -.47 (.94)
General Infrastructure .63 (.70) -.63 (.86)
Supervision .49 (.70) -.49 (1.02)

Approach to Research .56 (.78) -.56 (.89)

Overall satisfaction .60 (.57) -.62 (.94)


Skills Development .50 (.76) -.51 (.95)

Table C: Cluster analysis of perceptions of research environment, approach to research


and outcomes variables (Sciences, n=293) (z-scores and s.d.)

Cluster 1 Cluster 2
Variables N = 152 N = 141
Departmental Intellectual Climate .55 (.73) -.59 (.92)
Departmental Infrastructure .59 (.66) -.65 (.90)
General Infrastructure .48 (.78) -.53 (.95)
Supervision .61 (.62) -.67 (.90)

Approach to Research .41 (.88) -.44 (.94)

Overall satisfaction .56 (.61) -.57 (.96)


Skills Development .46 (.76) -.50 (1.00)

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Annexe VII: Study questionnaire

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Annexe VIII: Qualitative study PGR student Interview Schedule

Interviews were conducted with 33 PGR students in preparation for the quantitative
study. Each interview lasted for about an hour. It was audio-taped and transcribed. It
had several parts, two of which were part of this study and focused on teaching and the
research environment.

(a) Teaching background and experience (15 min)

1. What teaching are you doing now at Oxford? (tutorials, classes, labs )
2. What sort of things do you do in a typical tutorial/class/lab
3. Why do you do it that way?
4. How do you think students feel about your teaching compared with that of
tutors?
5. Why do you teach?
6. What support/training have you had? What more do you need?
7. Is your pay fair for what you do?
8. Is there anything else you would like to add about teaching

(b) Questionnaire development (30 min)

1. Please briefly describe what the research you are doing is about?
2. Describe a typical week?
3. How do you go about this? Why do you do it that way?
(Deep-surface; parts-whole; multistructural-relational)
4. How would you describe the environment in which you work? (supportive,
lonely, hierarchical, power-laden, excluding )
5. Why are you doing research? (confidence, motivation, importance, interest)
6. What would you say has been the value that Oxford has added, if any?
7. What do you see as the benefits of being in your college? (feelings of
place/hierarchy in college)
8. Oxford is considering expanding (increasing) graduate student numbers
what do you see as being the benefits/disadvantages/issues for you?
9. What aspects of your experience at Oxford would you most like to change?
10. What aspects of your experience at Oxford would you most like to retain?
11. What do you think a survey of research students at Oxford should include
that has not already been discussed today?

At the end of this section, each interviewee was asked to test a part (6 items) of the
proposed questionnaire.

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Annexe IX: References

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