2 Dec 2011

Good Universities or Good Students?

Are the top ranked universities the best places to study or do research?

I ask this because after talking to a number of PhD students studying in the UK, it appears that doctoral researchers in lower ranked Universities get more help and are often better supervised than students in some of the so called "top ranked" universities.

For example, at one doctoral conference I met this brilliant chap who was presenting a poster. He was doing his PhD in one of the "top ranked" Universities in the UK and his supervisor is a leading academics in the field of Marketing. Of course I asked how it was like being supervised by the renowned Professor. Imagine my surprise when I learnt that he had met his supervisor only TWICE ever since he started his PhD and he was already in his second year. And he is not the only one. I know of several guys in top universities narrating their frustration with the lack of good supervision and how their supervisors had sat on their drafts/ reports for months without providing any feedback.

I know that PhD students are supposed to be independent and that these Professors are really busy but I feel that this is very irresponsible - besides carrying out ground breaking research, they are supposed to supervise their students as well. That's why they are paid such huge salaries.Sometimes it appears that the only time the supervisors show some interest is when the students submit journal papers for publication as their names are also included (sometimes as the lead author).

However, despite the quality of supervision (or lack of) these students go on to complete their research and amazingly even do it within the stipulated 3 years + or - a few months. I attribute this to the fact that the students were themselves high achievers, independent and hard working in the first place.

Of course I cannot deny that these top ranked Universities have excellent facilities and offer all kinds of opportunities to the students - opportunities not available to students in lower ranked (and lower funded) universities. However, these top universities put up such high selection criteria and select only the cream of the applicants. In other words Top universities attract Top students and of course, their output is excellent as well.

My experiences were a bit different, I had two excellent supervisors and I could fix an appointment to meet them whenever I wanted to even though they were quite busy and I actually kind of liked being independent in the first place. One of my supervisors went through the final draft of my thesis in just one week and there were comments on almost every page. It is no wonder that he is one of the youngest Professors in Warwick.

If you are currently doing your PhD or have recently completed it, I would love to hear your experiences. Did you receive the level of supervision which you had expected when you started out your PhD.

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