Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

PhD Students' Experiences of Thesis Supervision in Malaysia: Managing Relationships in the Midst of Institutional Change

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

PhD Students' Experiences of Thesis Supervision in Malaysia: Managing Relationships in the Midst of Institutional Change

Article excerpt


From this last year, I now know what I don't want to be when I become a supervisor later on. I know I don't want to be like her.... (Allison, PhD student)

For students of the PhD process, achieving one's goal can feel like a lifetime's worth of education in just three or four years. For those that do not experience the joy of reaching their goal, the failure to do so can result in a lifetime's worth of regret and self-doubt. The "failure" of not getting through a PhD program can be devastating. In quoting her non-completer interview respondents, Lovitts (2001, p. 6) describes the experience as "gut-wrenching," "horrible," "disappointing," and even cites a small number that have resorted to suicide as a result of not being able to complete their programs.

Concern about the level of non- or late-completion of graduate studies is well documented internationally (Grant & Graham, 1999; Lovitts, 2001; Terrell, Snyder, & Dringus, 2009). Armstrong (2004) reports that in the UK, between 40% and 50% of students fail to successfully complete dissertations in the social sciences. Similar figures were reported in a later study where it was found that out of 1,969 candidates, 46% withdrew. In North America, failure and completion rates are very similar to those reported in the UK, with as many as 50% of students entering graduate programs dropping out before finishing (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000; Smallwood, 2004).

A variety of reasons for the increase in attrition rates have been advanced. In her well-reviewed book on the subject, Lovitts (2001) puts forth several arguments regarding factors that affect persistence outcomes and high rates of attrition among graduate students across disciplines. One of her main points is that the background characteristics that students bring with them to the graduate experience are not what matters, but rather what happens after they arrive that affects the overall outcome of their experience. To strengthen her argument, she refers to data that show that those who leave doctoral programs and those who stay are equally capable academically. She says,

   Their background characteristics, their external commitments and
   responsibilities, their socialization as undergraduates, and the
   clarity of their understanding of the system of graduate education
   in general and their own program in particular, as well as their
   adaptive capacities, interact with the structures they confront in
   their programs to determine their persistence outcomes. (p. 41)

In her review of the literature from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, Moses (1984) identified three categories of student discontent: personality factors which include interpersonal differences in language, work style and also personality clash; professional factors which include a supervisor who is ignorant, misinformed or who has few or different research interests; and organizational factors which include the supervisor having too many students or too many competing responsibilities, and inadequate departmental provisions (Grant & Graham, 1999). Lovitts (2001) broadened the factors influencing degree completion and creative performance to include individual resources (e.g., intelligence, motivation, learning styles and personality), the microenvironment (e.g., location, department, peers and other faculty, and advisor) and the macroenvironment (e.g., culture of graduate education and culture of the discipline).

Although a number of factors have been identified relating to the phenomenon of attrition among PhD students, most researchers on the subject agree that completing the PhD is a process that depends on a close, working relationship between students and supervisors (Grant & Graham, 1999; Grevholm, Persson, & Wall, 2005; Lovitts, 2001; Styles & Radloff, 2001; Zainal Abiddin, 2007). Unlike other professional or educational relationships, the PhD supervisory relationship can often make or break one's success. …

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