Skip navigation
Responsibilities May Include

What counts as support for PhD students?

Even though funding remains the most requested priority, many PhDs also want professional development support.


Over the past decade, the pressures on pursuing a PhD have intensified. Inflation and the cost of living have ballooned while graduate funding has not kept pace with these economic challenges. The collapse of the academic job market in some sectors has added acute pressure on doctoral students looking to their future. Since many of us working in graduate education have no direct influence on graduate funding packages or tenure-track hiring, what else  can we do to support our students’ success?

To answer this question, my team in the dean’s office of the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto solicited responses from doctoral students themselves. In Summer 2022, we surveyed  doctoral students in arts and science, providing open-ended questions to capture what PhD students count as significant obstacles and sources of support to their degree progress. We received 682 responses, amounting to 23 per cent of our doctoral population at the time.

Survey results revealed three commonly perceived obstacles to degree progress:

  1. the COVID-19 pandemic,
  2. limited or insufficient funding, and
  3. mental health challenges.

However, when asked to identify significant supports, several survey respondents expressed confusion or outright disdain. One respondent dismissed the question entirely without attempting an answer, exclaiming, “I literally don’t know what you mean by this question. Emotional support? Financial support?” This avoidant reply captured the very challenge of determining what support means to graduate students. We might start by clarifying and normalizing seeking support in graduate school.

What do PhDs think “support” mean?

Our survey left “significant sources of support” intentionally open to interpretation so that we might learn what doctoral students think is significant. Some respondents mentioned social support from family and friends and mentorship from faculty members, but the vast majority focused on financial sources. Tri-Council doctoral scholarships (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC), Ontario graduate scholarships, external grants and internal university fellowships, even teaching and research assistantships, were cited as the most significant sources of support for their progress. Improved funding was accordingly the most requested support.

This focus on improved funding is an accurate needs assessment – graduate funding has failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living – but it is also potentially misleading. Studies have shown no correlation between funding and time-to-degree completion among top humanities graduate students in U.S. PhD programs. Instead, graduate student success depends on a myriad of non-funding related factors, including the types of projects and differing research methodologies, as well as departmental cultures and supervisory expectations. (Coincidentally, our survey found that supervision and departmental culture were cited equally as both obstacles and significant sources of support to progress.) Even as inadequate funding undoubtedly compounds the pressures students face, and we should continue to advocate for increased funding, we should also recognize that funding on its own has never been sufficient for addressing times-to-degree or fostering post-degree success.

How do we support doctoral students?

While funding remains the most requested form of support, one in five of our senior PhD respondents requested further support for professional development, broadly understood. These requests included writing accountability and feedback groups, training in new research methodologies and pedagogical practices, and resources for pursuing academic and non-academic careers. As one respondent explained, “the biggest challenge is trying to transition from an academic career path while still in a PhD program, as the demands on time are already high … you need to wear multiple hats at once.” Just as doctoral students wear multiple hats, our solutions also need to be multifaceted. For some students, a one-off workshop or career panel may be enough. Others may want more regular, coordinated meetings or even courses that develop skills and professional capacities over time.

We should develop multifaceted support not only to address doctoral students’ perceived needs at the time, but to shape how they learn and respond to future needs. One respondent, for example, suggested that having more structured one-on-one planning earlier in their degree might have helped address the “no man’s land” they later experienced between candidacy and defense. As Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy recommend, such targeted support is best developed in close conversation with academic departments. Those of us working in centralized offices should be working to create programming that complements — rather than competes with –the work graduate units already do.

Above all, we ought to avoid solutions that ignore the strengths of our graduate students as independent-minded, critical thinkers. Although this independence can lead  students to misidentify or underestimate their own needs, paternalistic approaches risk patronizing or alienating students in ways that waste everyone’s time. It’s better to build support that addresses what doctoral students need as they realize it, even as we aim to prepare them for needs they don’t yet recognize.

Joel Rodgers
Joel Rodgers is the graduate student professional development coordinator in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey