Some doctoral students find their supervisors unreliable

Supervisors who do not have time for their doctoral students, or research which is used without giving the doctoral student credit as an author….

Aleksandra Popovic

Aleksandra Popovic hopes that the newly established Research Programmes Board will result in increased initiative when it comes to dealing with the doctoral students’ problems.

This is a recurring issue for many doctoral students, according to a survey, Doktorandspegeln, presented by the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) around the new year.  Doctoral student ombudsman Aleksandra Popovic confirms that the survey also reflects the conditions at Lund University.

Doctoral students face different problems, depending on whether they are working at a faculty with externally funded research activities, or at one of the “dry” faculties, such as Humanities and Theology or Social Sciences.

“In subjects where a large part of the research consists of externally funded projects, the project manager often becomes the doctoral student’s boss rather than their supervisor”, says Aleksandra Popovic.

She receives many unhappy stories from doctoral students who are in this situation. But she is rarely able to convince them to move forward with their complaints. In most cases, she is also not given permission to take action because of the students’ fear of reprisals.

“Doctoral students often depend on their principal supervisors for the publication of their research. They frequently tell me about how some are not included among the authors, despite co-authorship, while other up-and-comers are included, even though they did not participate in conducting the research”, explains Aleksandra Popovic who takes this matter very seriously.

She argues that the fact that this is taking place in research makes the situation particularly detrimental, as research is supposed to be credible and “clean”.

“If you can’t trust the researchers in one respect, you might not be able to trust them in other aspects either.”

What’s worse is that Aleksandra Popovic believes that communicating such issues to the relevant head of department would not be worthwhile.

“I think the heads of department and colleagues see what’s going on – it appears to be systematic in some places – but managers have not been able to handle the situation as it concerns their own colleagues….”

Aleksandra Popovic says that some students, however, have tried to raise the issue concerning these bad conditions, and the reprisals they then suffered include withholding of information and sour and dismissive attitudes.

At the Faculty of Humanities and Theology, for instance, the problems are different. A study from 2016 (Ola Holmström: Solitude, socialisation and recognition within third-cycle education) shows that first of all, doctoral students who work alone are generally less happy about their situation compared to those who are part of a group – and this is consistent with Aleksandras Popovic’s experiences as well. But it is not only about loneliness; it is also about the University’s unclear requirements.

“Doctoral students often don’t know what is expected of them. And their supervisors are busy with other things, including grant applications, teaching or documenting.”

Aleksandra Popovic further argues that the doctoral thesis project is subject to an ideal from the past which does not comply with today’s structure of time-limited doctoral studies.

“The doctoral thesis was previously considered a person’s life’s work, and it was often very extensive and incredibly long. This ideal still remains among certain supervisors and creates a lot of pressure when the student is about to run out of funding and the extent of the thesis is not consistent with the prevailing ideals.”

The doctoral student ombudsman argues there are certain adaptations to reality to be made when it comes to the individual study plans – not least with regard to regular follow-up.

Aleksandra Popovic has been a doctoral student ombudsman since 2009 and she herself is a doctoral student of public international law with a good supervisor, so she has no personal complaints.

“If you have been lucky enough to get a good supervisor, you will also have a good experience”, she says, well aware that there are many good supervisors at LU.

However, she experiences an increase in the amount of cases, despite the fact that third-cycle education has recently been on many people’s agendas.

“There is a desire to make things better for the doctoral students, but there is still a lack of initiative”, she believes.

The removal of the so-called study grants and the transition to doctoral studentships a few years ago was the result of many years of advocacy by the doctoral students’ union to ensure that all students are employed on equal terms from the first day, she says.

“But I suspect that the number of scholarship students has increased, and even if they receive a decent salary, they have considerably less social security.”

Aleksandra Popovic has also noted that Doktorandspegeln, as well as LU’s own recent survey, shows that doctoral students in engineering and medicine largely state that they began their studies without formal admission to the programme.

“This is probably a situation where project-based appointments and preparatory courses are systematically used in some places”, she says, and believes that the problem with this is that it may undermine the rules concerning open competition.

“They start by trying out a person, and if they are happy with their performance they tailor the appointment to match the specific person. Furthermore, attention is not paid to how important it is that those who are offered a project-based position or admission to a preparatory research course are not tricked into thinking that they can begin their research studies prior to admission.”

In this context, Aleksandra Popovic is at least pleased that it has been a long time since she received a case concerning a so-called “shadow doctoral student”, that is, a person who believes they are pursuing research studies but who has in fact not been admitted to a research studies programme.

“I hope this is because they no longer exist and not because they are increasingly well-hidden….”

Previously, there was the council for third-cycle studies as a forum for doctoral student issues, and now there is the recently established Research Programmes Board.

“It’s still fairly new, but the idea is for me to present my cases to the board, and hopefully the board’s work will lead to more action when it comes to addressing the problems that currently exist”, says Aleksandra Popovic and argues that many doctoral students feel left out in both student and research contexts.

“They should instead be feeling like they are a part of both worlds!”

Text and photo: Maria Lindh