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HEFCE

January 2005/02 (web only)
Issues paper

This report is for information only


PhD research degrees

Entry and completion

This report examines the rates of completion for a cohort of students attending UK higher education institutions who began a doctorate degree mainly by research in academic year 1996-97. It is intended to inform discussion about the quality of supervision of postgraduate research in general, and the time and rate of PhD completion in particular.


To: Heads of publicly-funded higher education institutions in the United Kingdom
Of interest to those responsible for: Student data, Research, Planning
Reference: 2005/02
Publication date: January 2005
Enquiries to:

For enquiries on this report:
Mark Gittoes
tel 0117 931 7052
e-mail m.gittoes@hefce.ac.uk

For comments or questions about monitoring or completion rates for individual institutions or, more generally, about HEFCE's policies for improving quality of supervision of research students:
Will Naylor
tel 0117 931 7471
e-mail w.naylor@hefce.ac.uk


Table of contents and executive summary (read on-line)



Contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Outline of discussion
  • Data source and the definition of the cohort
  • Entry to PhD programmes
  • Progression paths through PhD programmes
  • Outcomes of PhD programmes
  • Time to PhD completion
  • PhD completion rates by programme and student attributes
  • Comparisons with submission rates published by OST
  • Discussion and conclusions
  • Annex A   HESA student record data definitions
  • Annex B   Outline of method used to link HESA student records
  • Annex C   PhD completion propensity models
  • List of abbreviations

Executive summary

Purpose

1.   This report examines the rates of completion for a cohort of students attending UK higher education institutions who began on a doctorate degree mainly by research in academic year 1996-97. It is intended to inform discussion about the quality of supervision of postgraduate research in general, and the time and rate of PhD completion in particular.

Key points

2.   In this document the term 'PhD' is used to refer to all 'doctorate degrees mainly by research', including small numbers of specialist doctoral degrees such as Doctor of Education (EdD) and Doctor of Engineering (EngD).

Entry to PhD programmes

3.   For full-time students, 35 per cent progress directly from a first degree or MSc to a PhD programme from the same higher education institution (HEI); 27 per cent from a different HEI; and 38 per cent did not qualify at undergraduate or MSc level in the year before. The equivalent figures for part-time students are 12 per cent, 9 per cent and 78 per cent.

Progression

4.   The progress of students was followed for seven academic years, from their start in 1996-97 through to 2002-03. Over that period we find that:

  1. 18 per cent of those who start as full-time students change to part-time, and 11 per cent of those who start as part-time students change to full-time.
  2. 4 per cent of students move between institutions during their programme.
  3. 10 per cent of students take a break of at least one whole academic year during their programme.
  4. 11 per cent of full-time students and 28 per cent of part-time students are still actively following their programme in 2002-03, seven years after they began.

Outcomes

5.   A student is defined as completing when they have been awarded a PhD and the 'qualification obtained' has been returned through the individualised HESA student record. This will typically be up to a year after the student submitted their thesis for assessment.

6.   Following this definition we find that by 2000-01, after five years, 57 per cent of PhD students who began their studies on a full-time course, and 19 per cent starting on a part-time course had completed. By 2002-03, after seven years, the completion rates were 71 per cent and 34 per cent for full-time and part-time starters respectively.

7.   5 per cent of full-time students and 3 per cent of part-time students gain an MPhil within seven years. This results in 74 per cent of full-time students and 37 per cent of part-time students gaining an MPhil, a PhD or both.

8.   Significant and material differences in the rate of PhD completion are found for differences in financial backing, by student domicile, by age on entry, by previous qualifications and by subject, as well as by mode. The following were shown to be associated with higher rates of completion:

  • students with financial backing, particularly from Research Councils, charities or the British Academy
  • students from overseas
  • younger students
  • students following programmes in the natural sciences.

9.   The low completion rates for part-time students are due in part to the fact that there are fewer part-time students with the characteristics associated with high completion as described above.

Differences in completion rates between institutions

10.   There is significant and material variation in PhD completion rates for full-time students when considering individual institutional and departmental rates, even after taking into account all the other student and programme factors found to be associated with completion rates.

11.   However for part-time students, although the modelling shows that the institutional variation is statistically significant, this variation is not materially different from what we would expect from random variations between individual students.

Action required

12.   No action is required in response to this document.