Humanities post-grads feel less support, fight for desks

Many postgraduate students do not have their own desk and chair. Flickr/davepatten

Postgraduate students in humanities, arts and social sciences are older, feel less supported and have fewer spaces to work than their counterparts in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to a survey of more than 1,000 students completing research degrees.

Students in all disciplines said the quality of the supervision they received was the most important factor when considering whether to stay on or drop out. Some complained they did not have enough funding to attend conferences or perform field work, while others said they did not have their own desk or lab space, according to the survey, developed by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) with the Department of Education.

The President of CAPA, Chamonix Terblanche, will present the findings at the Higher Education Summit in Melbourne today. She said supervision was “easily the biggest concern for students, and the most important factor when it comes to those who drop out.

"Collegiality too. As soon as research candidates feel they’re being treated with respect, and their opinion counts, and they’re being included in all these collegiate activities, then it’s a far better experience for them. Their supervisor is crucial to that.”

The survey found that humanities, arts and social science (HASS) students made up just 25% of postgraduate students aged 24 or younger, but 85% of students over 65.

While most participants said they had a positive experience of “academic inclusivity and collegiality”, 134 HASS students rated their experience as poor or below average compared with 100 students in science-based subjects. Almost twice as many HASS students did not have access to their own desk and chair: 153 to 79.

Ms Terblanche said that although the survey did not map attrition rates, “we do know anecdotally that for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences, attrition rates are higher than for people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The latter tend to work together on industry-based projects or in labs, so they have more support around them naturally. But with the humanities and others, they tend to work more on their own, so they’re isolated and don’t always have someone to reach out to.”

The average age of a PhD student was 35, she said. Many had worked for several years and expected to be treated as equals rather than “rookies” when they returned to their studies.

“Resources are a big issue. So are the tools that students are furnished with. Do they have their own desk and computer? How much money are they allowed to spend on doing field work? Do they have support for attending conferences?”

The report said that “so-called ‘imposter syndrome’, that is, the feeling that one does not deserve what one has accomplished, such as a place in a higher degree by research, seems to be fairly common amongst higher degree by research candidates, and may be why many believe that they are simply not ‘smart enough’ when supervision proves difficult.

"The stakes can be a lot higher when there is limited expertise in the department, such as when disciplinary knowledge is restricted to an HDR candidate’s supervisor. When things go wrong in such environments, there can be nowhere to turn.”