The majority of PhD candidates at the UvA are satisfied with the supervision they receive. There is still room for improvement, for example with respect to career orientation and the mental well-being of PhD candidates. These are some of the findings of the annual PhD survey carried out by the Central PhD Council (CPC) among PhD candidates at the UvA (with the exception of the AMC-UvA).
The survey was completed by 521 PhD candidates, about 33% of the 1,600 PhD candidates at the UvA. ‘The Council’s findings and recommendations are important’, says UvA rector magnificus Karen Maex. ‘We will study them closely and focus on the most important points of attention.’
Overall, 80% of PhD candidates are satisfied with the supervision they receive from supervisor(s) and co-supervisor(s). Seventy-five per cent of PhD candidates expect to complete their dissertation within the agreed timeframe. Those who do not, cite the scope of their research project and practical setbacks as the main reasons.
Sixty-nine per cent of the respondents have teaching duties that primarily comprise giving lectures and supervising theses. Approximately a third of PhD candidates are unsure about whether they are properly equipped for this task. More than half of PhD candidates indicate an interest in obtaining the Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO). A number of faculties offer alternatives to the full Basic Teaching Qualification, such as didactics courses, teaching skills training or a shortened BKO ‘light’. ‘We recommend making a BKO light available to all PhD candidates, because at the moment a BKO or a shortened version of it is not offered at every faculty’, says Sarah Eskens, chair of the Central PhD Council. Maex: ‘This is something we will look at. I would also like to include transferable skills, since many of our PhD candidates continue their careers outside the university.’
About a third of respondents do not feel well informed about the terms and conditions of their employment. Eskens: ‘The faculties should do more to encourage PhD candidates to familiarise themselves with these terms and conditions, and efforts should be made to simplify access to relevant information on the university’s website. We will also draw attention to it in our PhD newsletters.’
Approximately half of international PhD candidates have experienced difficulties (to varying degrees) in arranging their arrival and stay in the Netherlands. The primary problem is housing, but also language, healthcare or social contacts are mentioned. These issues form part of a broader range of aspects the UvA will work on in the coming years. For instance, one of the goals of the newly updated 2017 Strategic Framework for Internationalisation is to improve the ‘soft landing’ introduction period for international students and staff.
About a quarter of the respondents are dissatisfied with the career-orientation activities on offer. Of those who make use of the available activities, more than half are dissatisfied with the content. The Central PhD Council advises the university to investigate the possibilities of strengthening both the content of the career-guidance programmes and the communication of these programmes to PhD candidates specifically. The UvA will look at ways to better tailor the programmes to PhD candidates.
As opposed to the 2015 survey, this year’s edition did not aim to measure how PhD candidates score on a depression scale. In partnership with the UvA’s Disability, Chronic Illness and Occupational Impairment (FCA) Committee, the survey contained questions on disabilities and support arrangements. Fifteen per cent of respondents indicated having a mental or physical condition that they perceive is impacting their work performance. A third of this group indicate depression as the source. Matters like stress and anxiety are also mentioned often.
In discussions on the mental well-being of PhD candidates, it is sometimes assumed that the problems which emerge during the PhD track are attributable to supervision. The Central PhD Council did not look into whether a correlation exists between mental well-being and the quality of supervision, but nonetheless stresses that supervisors and the wider university community have a role to play in identifying and highlighting mental health problems among PhD candidates. Maex agrees: ‘It is extremely important to ensure mental health problems are more widely discussed. Also, we need to meet this issue head on. For instance, this year will see the step-by-step implementation of a new UvA Care Plan for students and PhD candidates. This plan comprises different initiatives focused on awareness, information provision and on strengthening the supervision of students and PhD candidates with health problems.’
To safeguard respondents’ privacy, the Central PhD Council has not included the exact figures on occupational impairment in the survey. The figures are partly described in the summary (paragraph 3.9).