Anger over treatment of PhD students

By Julia Atherley

PhD students have written to the Archaeology department following news that they will lose dedicated desk space.

Palatinate have received access to an email signed by 26 postgraduate research (PGR) students which claims that the department now provides only one office with approximately 30 desks for 130 individuals.

The issue is specifically affecting students in the ‘continuation’ period of their PhDs, when supervision has finished, and students complete their theses.

“We write to you today as PGRs in archaeology who are passionate about our subject and the future of the discipline at Durham.

“We feel that the sacrifices being asked of us are disproportionate to the many ways in which we contribute”

“We very much regret that from our perspective the postgraduate experience in archaeology at this university is being eroded, and we are keen to work with you to address this.”

They highlighted the “isolation and marginalization” of PhD students as a university wide issue, as students no longer feel their voices are heard within the department.

The contributors point to the large contribution PhD students make to the academic sphere, including organising international conferences, mentoring Undergraduate and Masters students, leading tutorials, marking essays, organising seminars, and representing the department at open days.

The email continues: “We feel that the sacrifices being asked of us are disproportionate to the many ways in which we contribute.

“Many of us have good individual relationships with our supervisors and other members of the department, and we are baffled as to why the collective/group dynamic is so challenging”.

One anonymous postgraduate student said: “I’ve struggled with the desk space issue for the past two years, and have finally given up the fight and work from home.

“This has become very socially isolating and increasingly bad for mental and emotional health. I don’t feel any sense of belonging in the department, and apart from the excellent support of my supervisor, I feel like I don’t even matter in the department.

“This is a huge blow to morale as an overseas student paying over sixteen thousand pounds per year to be part of the archaeology department at Durham University. We work to help departmental ratings go up while we’re made to feel undervalued.”

The group have requested that the room 329 in the archaeology department remains a postgraduate working space and that the university continues to provide desks for 3rd and 4th year research students. 329 is currently being renovated to improve facilities for PGR students.

They also ask that the department recognise the difficulties of working in such circumstances and communicate with the PGR community effectively.

The group praise the treatment of students in the Geography department where desk space as well as free tea and coffee are provided.

The group praise the treatment of students in the Geography department where desk space as well as free tea and coffee are provided.

The heads of department have since responded to the email, stating “Given the pressure on space in the Archaeology-controlled part of the Dawson Building, and the growing need to accommodate full-time members of staff, we regrettably can no longer provide dedicated space for PhD students who are writing up”.

The department then sent a subsequent email, which appears to threaten students on continuation with a withdrawal of facilities.

“In a nutshell, the university does NOT offer desk space to PGRs in continuation (i.e. post Year 3). We’ve gone against this, trying to offer desks to completing PGRs, but thanks to our recent discussions we were prompted to clarify this.

“We’ll be following university policy from now on, offering hot desking to PGRs in Years 1, 2 and 3”.

Professor Robin Skeates, Head of the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, told Palatinate: “We highly value our PhD students and are committed to offering them the best learning and study environment possible.

“Due to the continued growth of our thriving Department, it has been necessary to reallocate a room previously available to PhD students, to accommodate new members of staff.

“We continue to offer a large hot-desking space for over 20 PhD students, which we believe already meets current requirements, and which will be fully refurbished this summer, following consultation with our students.

“We are keen to work with our PhD students and are meeting their representatives to explore any further actions that might be possible.”

Photograph: Durham University


4 Responses

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  1. Steve wilder
    May 13, 2018 - 11:36 PM

    Completing a PhD is not about not having a desk to work from. The analogy is like stating that davinci didn’t do a good job on the Mona Lisa because he didnt have a kettle. Please present some positives about the supervision tht is offered if possible

    • Stuart Goldie
      May 14, 2018 - 03:37 PM

      No; the analogy is like saying da Vinci didn’t do a good job because he wasn’t allowed into the workshop with all the other talented artists and was instead asked to do the best he could in his garden shed. This story is about a lack of desk space and feeling isolated from the community. As it goes, the article does commend the supervision; but that is not the focus of the article and any suggestion that the Palatinate should always find nice things to say about the university flies in the face of everything an independent student newspaper should be.

  2. nemo
    May 14, 2018 - 09:42 AM

    “This has become very socially isolating and increasingly bad for mental and emotional health. I don’t feel any sense of belonging in the department”

    This is s a worrying quote, but I don’t think it boils down to whether a dedicated desk is provided, especially in the write-up period. These are feelings which are very common for postgraduate research students (and especially so for those who are part-time, as an aside) – the literature is pretty clear about this (1). It is however, a symptom of a wider sense of disconnection, and if I were a member of staff fin the department (and just for clarity, I’m not) that is something that would cause me a deal of concern. I’d be very interested to see how common an experience that was across PGR students in the department generally.

    (1) Phillips EM, Pugh DS (2010) How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors, McGraw-Hill Education (UK

  3. Ellen
    May 14, 2018 - 10:30 PM

    I graduated with my MSc from this department in 2010. Room 329 was a wonderful place to communicate with peers and have a dedicated spot where we could leave materials sometimes. There’s nothing like it, not in the town library or the uni library. Saying people on writeup can’t access the space feels very much like ostracism from the one free space where you can socialize with other graduate students. Plus people get excluded at the very time when they might be feeling like a failure or stressed over their writeup progression and trajectory. Why make that process lonelier than it has to be?


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