What Could Make a PhD Program Fail – Part 1

Failure – lack of success; the action or state of not functioning1

It would be very difficult – if not impossible – for a CRC PhD program to fail. If for no other reason that the PhD itself is offered and managed through a university, not the CRC. However, if the goal of the CRC is to turn out PhD graduates with an enhanced or specific skill set, then it is possible for the program to lack success or not to function. Thus, although students might graduate; although they could have an association with the CRC; the program might be considered a failure if:

  • Few or no students seek employment with the CRC or its partner organisations.
  • PhD projects don’t lead to commercial or equivalent outcomes of use to CRC partners.
  • PhD projects don’t lead to further research projects within the CRC.
  • The program does not meet student, supervisor or CRC participant expectations.

How can failure be avoided? How can CRCs implement and offer PhD programs that are a success? That train industry-linked researchers?

For PhD Programs similar to those likely offered by CRCs – often called enhanced or augmented PhD programs – there are four common failure points. Indeed, these failure points were also borne out in the research the CRCA conducted earlier in the year into PhD Programs currently offered by CRCs.


Student or supervisor neglect

Students and supervisors alike spoke about their feelings of neglect. For students, it was about feeling like labour hire. Cheap work, and they could feel neglected by their supervisor. Lack of meetings and regular email, phone and/or in person contact were the major drivers. Some students also felt disconnected from their CRC. Although it was not described as neglect, it could also fall into that category. In these cases, students felt isolated from the CRC peers. Having limited opportunities to meet and discuss progress or issues they faced in their research. This was more important to some than others. For students in small research groups based in remote areas, these feelings were higher than those based in larger research groups (including many people outside the CRC) or based in metro areas.

In most (if not all cases) student feelings of neglect and disconnection appeared to be able to be resolved by the same thing – a PhD student support group. At the CRC for Mental Health they have supported their PhD students to implement their own support program. The CRC provides the necessary infrastructure (e.g. videoconferencing platform, email notifications to participants) to allow regular (monthly) student catch-ups. These catch-ups have sometimes been facilitated, other times left to organically progress. They have included guest speakers (15 minutes of a 60 minute meeting), or presentations on a topic (e.g. self-care during a PhD; dealing with a difficult supervisor).

Supervisor feelings of neglect are less common, but also largely left unaddressed. Although supervisors are better able to raise the problems with the CRC management (presumably due to a different power dynamic when compared to PhD students), there are few if any reports of supervisor support groups. Although not further investigated, we assume supervisors discuss their students with their collaborators. However, the fact that supervisors still report feelings of neglect and disconnection, imply that it is worth trying to implement supervisor support groups – even if they meet less frequently than their student equivalents.

Good luck building and implementing your program!

If you need help building your PhD program(s) or finding existing programs to make use of, get in touch with the CRC Association and/or Dr Richard Huysmans (Richard.Huysmans@ravencg.com.au, 0412 606 178). We can help you build, implement and operate the best PhD program for your CRC.

Next week – we’ll look at another factor that could cause a PhD program to fail – lack of critical mass.


Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to our newsletter.

1Google, dictionary, https://www.google.com.au/search?q=Dictionary, accessed 12 July 2018