• The experience of doctoral studies in the UK and France

    Kuang-Hsu Chiang
    University of Edinburgh

    Research seminar

    Themes: the student experience and learning

    Monday 1 September 2008, 15.45-16.45 in Penthouse A

    The diversity of doctoral education has been widely studied and discussed in recent decades. This article aims to investigate how their research education was perceived by doctoral students from three disciplines (Chemistry, Education and Economics & Management) spanning two contrasting higher education systems, the UK and France. Besides focusing on the differences and complex issues experienced by doctoral students, I would also like to take a step further by asking the question of what underlies the multiple-realities of doctoral students’ experiences. What makes doctoral experiences diverse or common?    

    From the literature, three different theoretical positions were identified in exploring the underlying factors which make for variation in doctoral experiences. The first is the epistemological position which attributes the complexity of the doctoral experiences to the subjectivity of the discipline - the nature of the subject. One of the representative theorists is Tony Becher and his idea of academic tribes (1989, 1994). The second is the conceptualisation of the research objects. K. K. Cetina’s (1992) distinguished three different reconfigurations of laboratories based on how research objects are perceived: (i.) as “representations” of real-world phenomena; (ii.) as “processed partial versions” of these phenomena; (iii.) as “signatures” of the events of interest.

    The third theoretical position a structural one, was developed by the present author (Chiang, 2003, 2004). Instead of attributing the complexity of the doctoral experiences to the ontological or epistemological natures of the subjects, she argues that the sources of the diversity and commonality to be found in fact lie in the fundamental structure of the research training. In her research, two such structures were identified: teamwork and individualist. These two structures influence not only the supervisory relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors, but also the research environment for doctoral students at the departmental level.

    To understand the complexity of doctoral experiences and also to investigate the validity of these three theoretical positions, a questionnaire investigating the experiences of research training was distributed to doctoral students in Economics & Management and Chemistry in France and was compared to a survey carried out earlier in Education and Chemistry in the UK.

    An important finding of this study was that distinctive disciplinary cultures are found in Chemistry, and Education and Economics & Management, and those disciplinary differences correspond well even across contrasting higher education systems – in this case, in the UK and France.  Compared to students in Education and Economics & Management, where the cultures were individualist, doctoral students in Chemistry (where teamwork was the dominant culture) had more satisfactory academic experiences in two key areas: at the individual level, the relevance of the supervisor’s research to the student’s; and at the aggregate level, the academic culture of social interaction, intercultural facilitation of research and research facilities.

    The findings were then deployed to review the three theoretical positions in relation to the issue of doctoral diversity. The explanatory power of the three theoretical positions was tested and important issues were raised.