The experience of disagreement between students and supervisors in PhD education: a qualitative study

Gunnarsson, Ronny, Jonasson, Grethe, and Billhult, Annika (2013) The experience of disagreement between students and supervisors in PhD education: a qualitative study. BMC Medical Education, 13. 134.

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Background: PhD supervision is mostly individual and disagreement between supervisors and PhD students is a seldom-discussed topic at universities. The present study aimed to describe the experience of disagreement between PhD students and supervisors.

Methods: Nine supervisors and seven PhD students from Sweden and England were interviewed using a video recorder. The recorded material was analysed using inductive content analysis.

Results: Disagreements in PhD education can be described with the overarching theme: the nature of the disagreements changes over time. Five categories emerged to describe the variations of the experiences: involvement in important decisions, supervisors not being up-to-date, dubious advice from supervisors, mediating between supervisors, and interpersonal relationships.

Conclusions: There is a gradual shift in competence where PhD students may excel supervisors in subject knowledge. Early disagreements may indicate immaturity of the student while disagreements later may indicate that the student is maturing making their own decisions. Consequently, disagreements may need to be addressed differently depending on when they occur. Addressing them inappropriately might slow the progressions and result in higher attrition rate among PhD students. The five categories may be elements in future PhD supervisor training programs and should be further evaluated for their importance and impact on PhD education.

Item ID: 29791
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1472-6920
Keywords: PhD education, PhD student, supervisor, research, disagreement, higher degree education
Additional Information:

© 2013 Gunnarsson et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funders: Research and Development Council of Södra Älvsborg County, Sweden, Focus Foundation, Sweden
Date Deposited: 14 Oct 2013 04:25
FoR Codes: 13 EDUCATION > 1301 Education Systems > 130103 Higher Education @ 50%
13 EDUCATION > 1302 Curriculum and Pedagogy > 130209 Medicine, Nursing and Health Curriculum and Pedagogy @ 25%
13 EDUCATION > 1302 Curriculum and Pedagogy > 130299 Curriculum and Pedagogy not elsewhere classified @ 25%
SEO Codes: 93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9301 Learner and Learning > 930102 Learner and Learning Processes @ 30%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9302 Teaching and Instruction > 930202 Teacher and Instructor Development @ 30%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9302 Teaching and Instruction > 930201 Pedagogy @ 40%
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