On 19th June 2014 Vitae held an ‘Open Space’ discussion event to explore the new challenges for universities and researcher development in the evolving landscape of doctoral education. Discussions centred on whether, with current recruitment practices, the best doctoral candidates are being selected and how we can support the professional career development of researchers.
In addition, it was interesting to note concerns about the potential for a two-tier system of support for students, the allocation of resources and different models for managing the rising number of doctoral training programmes. The day concluded by raising possible directions for Vitae to work in support of this high profile area.
Perspective of a PhD student at the event.
A PhD student from the University of Warwick who took part was happy to share the following feedback:
“I am part of an interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) at Warwick that aims to span the interface between the Physical and the Life Sciences. I attended an Open Space workshop run by Vitae, in which the changing structure of doctoral education was considered at length. Topics of discussion included the pros and cons of traditionally funded PhDs compared to PhDs studied within a DTC set-up, along with the role that Supervisors play in supporting both types of PhD student.
For me as a research student, the event provided the opportunity to discuss my experiences as a PhD Student funded through a Doctoral Training Centre. When initially applying for PhDs, I found funding more accessible through DTCs rather than through traditional 3-year PhD projects, despite my initial efforts of PhD applications being targeted to 3-year pre-defined research projects. In DTCs, there is a more defined training element to the course, with a cohort-based approach – the advantages of these aspects of DTCs were discussed at the Vitae event and how all postgraduate research (PGR) students could benefit from the ethos that comes with DTCs. It was really interesting to hear these issues discussed from the viewpoint of the professionals working to support PGR students and what they do to continually aid the development of researchers.” Amy O’Reilly, University of Warwick
The theme of the event, which informed the initial speaker presentations and later discussions was:
“ How can we, together, support researchers, ensuring an equality of professional development provision for all, in light of the changing structures for doctoral education, such as doctoral training centres?”
Anna Price (Acting Assistant Director of KCL’s Graduate School and Vitae London Hub Manager), looking from the perspective of professional development and academia, Anna noted the key points in the theme as together, equality of opportunity and excellence.
Together: Collaborations within HEI’s are increasing, but also across and beyond HEI’s into the business world.
With the rise of doctoral training centre’s (DTC’s) and doctoral training programmes (DTP’s), seamless training provision with no gaps or duplication is the aim across academic and skills provision. This requires working together, but with different models available the challenge is to establish effective strategic communication.
Equality of opportunity: The current funding drivers and meritocracy can lead to the possibility of a two-tier system.
Excellence: Professional development should be preparing researchers for future careers in addition to academic research – understanding the job market and transferable skills needed across sectors.
The realities of a competitive academic career should be made clear at an early stage for researchers. But the question was raised, ‘is the extra support provided in a DTC potentially shielding them from some of the realities?’
Rebekah Smith McGloin (Doctoral Training Programmes Manager, University of Nottingham)
Rebekah raised some thought-provoking and pertinent points in considering some of the key questions about DTP’s in the face of huge RCUK (and other) investment, involving more recent and increasing cross-institutional consortia with ‘complex connectivity’ across industry, international networks, peers, academic community.
- Complex administration can be involved in effective integration
- A tension between T&L and research provision needs to be addressed.
- Working across research organisations
- What happens to the students who aren’t part of DTP’s? And for those involved, do they miss out on broader research community interaction?
- Interdisciplinarity needs to be set up and supervised effectively to really work
Robin Mellors-Bourne (Deputy Chief Executive and Director, Research and Intelligence, CRAC)
Robin’s talk concentrated on understanding the recruitment and selection of PGR’s from an institutional perspective, using recent survey findings.
Why do HEI’s recruit PGR’s? Responses showed that research development and output was at the top of the list, with excellent researchers seen as ‘engines of innovation’. Income and teaching support were actually very low priorities.
Most universities are also seeking and expecting growth in the number of researchers in the next five years, whilst interestingly recognising that the total market is likely to shrink. Working towards growth is particularly true in post-92 institutions, plus an increasing international focus – therefore funding is key.
One of the most important factors in assessing applicant quality remains academic attainment with a big rise in the requirement for a Masters degree. HEI’s want to see existing expertise in research skills, showing that the researcher can hit the ground running.
What is the impact of DTP’s on everyone else? With some HEI’s diverting money to match fund research council awards, is there a danger of reduced provision available for following their own institutional research agenda.
There is an expectation of more professional doctorates and ‘blended’ models of PGR study.
Could recruitment come from a narrower base as a result?
Iain Cameron – (Head of Research Careers and Diversity, RCUK)
Shaping the future: expectations for doctoral training from research councils.
Supervisors should recognise doctoral study as broad training for a range of careers, with increasing numbers of postdoc’s now facing careers outside academic research. He encouraged HEI’s to collaborate and share resources.
HEI’s should continue to work with PI’s and supervisors to increase engagement in the broader researcher development agenda.
Current funding can be seen as ‘leverage’ but the expectation of match funding research council money is to ensure strategic consideration in HEI’s are given priority.
The impact of obtaining PhDs.
It was noted that a report due for publication in the autumn will include the following observations:
Employers value deep specialist skills and knowledge.
The importance of ongoing government funding
Doctoral graduates contribute to innovation.
As a result, skills and attitudes of graduates can spill over to other employers. Reference was made on the importance of embedding and sustaining training provision as renewed funding is never a guarantee.
With the development in doctoral training, where is the ‘value added’ for the broader PhD community? The value in DTP’s is often in cohort provision, inductions and some skills training. Should HEI’s consider reconfiguring their provision to include all research students to embed training and avoid a two tier system.
The Open Space discussions (the concept of sharing and openness, not hierarchical, to provoke honest discussion) covered a range of topics including:
How do we/should we better manage PhDs expectations of training/careers during recruitment processes?
- Many take the opportunity as a means to an end: the chance to do their research. At that stage their career plans are unknown or focused on academia, so being clear on the value of the training is important in the recruitment process and induction.
- Ask alumni to give talks on their career outside academia and how their training and PhD led to this. The cohort approach which people positively invest and engage in is already showing the benefits of this networking approach.
- The involvement of supervisors is important to reinforce the training message at recruitment, induction and later.
- If PhD research is viewed as a job, not the continuation of being a student then there should be an expectation of training for professional development as there is in the commercial world.
How do we support supervisors to engage with the researcher development agenda and to identify their own training needs? How might the role of supervisors be better embedded in DTC’s?
- How do we solve the divisive potential of provision for DTC students v traditional self-funded students (in the interests of equality in the over-arching theme)?
- Have the research councils deliberately set this up to create a two tier system, to show the value in their funding?
- Intentional or not, a two tier model is a potential outcome.
- Doctoral training is a very diverse landscape with different expectations of resource and training, including different expectations of students and supervisors.
- Would it be possible to have an equality of experience with limited or ring-fenced resource in some HEI’s?
- On a positive note, can a HEI learn from DTC provision to provide some aspects more broadly and share good practice.
- Concern that DTC’s have developed adhoc in some cases where central coordination in training, etc is not in place.
How best to include public engagement training for PGR’s and what is most useful to them?
- Build it into the idea of researcher personal development.
- Seed funding for events
- Disseminate examples of good practice in training etc. (possible involvement from Vitae?)
- It is important to understand what funding bodies want from public engagement and impact.
These and other discussions will continue online at: https://vitaeworkspaces.basecamphq.com/projects/12192758-vitae-open-space-19-June-2014/log
Conclusions from the event and the message coming out of each theme for Vitae?
- What does a PhD mean today? More of a job than a continuation of study/being a student.
- Case studies for models of excellence could be helpful.
- Mapping the researcher developer role and context in doctoral training to raise awareness.
- Explore the idea of excellence, reflecting on what this may mean for students and HEI’s.
- Transferable skills training
- What is CDT/DTP cohort good practice? Case studies on different models
- Define public engagement in this context: models/case studies on what it is and the importance for researchers
- Training for supervisors on the value of the researcher development/training agenda.