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Working Scientist podcast: It's time to fix the "one size fits all" PhD

Brainstorming, paper cutting style

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All change please: Six higher education leaders tell Julie Gould how PhD programmes can become more flexible, collaborative and rewarding.

Suzanne Ortega, president of the US Council of Graduate Schools, says programmes now include elements to accommodate some of the skills now being demanded by employers, including project and data management expertise. "We can't expect to prepare doctoral researchers in a timely fashion by simply adding more and more separate activities," she tells Gould. "We need to redesign the curricula and the capstone project," referring to the PhD as a long-term investigative project that culminates in a final product.

Jonathan Jansen, professor of education at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, calls for more flexible and modular programmes. As an example he compares them to MBA programmes, which have evolved from a full-time one year course to include part-time online only programmes and a "blended" combination of the two approaches. "It's about trying to figure out in terms of your own lifestyle what kind of programme design works for you," he says. "One size does not fit all."

But Jansen's colleague Liezel Frick, director of the university's centre for higher and adult education, says it's important to remember the ultimate goal of a PhD. She tells Gould: "I get the point around flexibility but it's still a research focused degree. You still have to make an original contribution to your field of knowledge. Otherwise it becomes a continuing professional development programme where you can do odds and ends but never get to the core of it, which is a substantive research contribution."

David Bogle, a doctoral school pro-vice-provost at UCL, London, says it's important to remember that graduate students are part of a cohort and community who should be respected and rewarded, not looked down on and treated as second class citizens. "At the moment there's a certain amount of 'I'm the supervisor. You should be looking to me as the primary source of inspiration,' when in fact the inspiration comes from peers, professional communities, training and cross disciplinary activities."

This is the second episode in a five-part series timed to coincide with Nature's 2019 PhD survey. Many of the 6,300 graduate students who responded call for more one-to-one support and better career guidance from PhD supervisors.



All change please: Six higher education leaders tell Julie Gould how PhD programmes can become more flexible, collaborative and rewarding.

Julie Gould

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In this episode, I want to ask what the PhD will look like in the future.

Based on the first episode of this series, we can clearly see that there are elements of the PhD training system that need to change, but how much change is actually needed? I met Suzanne Ortega, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools in the US at the Revisiting Forms and Forces of Doctoral Education meeting in Hanover, Germany earlier this year, and during her talk, she gave an overview of what PhD training needs to include and I asked her to summarise this for us at the end of the meeting.

Suzanne OrtegaWell, I think there probably is not one ideal training system, but here’s what I think are some of its essential elements. We surely will continue with professional development workshops that are designed to at least expose people to basic skills that employers say they want, whether it’s project management or data management or communication skills, but we can’t expect to prepare doctoral researchers in a timely fashion by simply adding more and more and more separate activities. So, what we really need to do is redesign, I would say, both the curricula and the capstone project so that we actually can, through the process of doing research, help our doctoral colleagues and scholars master some of those skills. So, for example, if one of your projects were to utilise the principle of design thinking and argue let’s start with a hypothetical model of what we want to achieve and reverse engineer the product, what kind of new way would we have of thinking, working together and gathering to accomplish a goal, and people are using this as part of pro seminars and elsewhere. That’s one example. I really believe that we need to find a way, not with more coursework and not asking people to master disciplines in multiple areas, but find a way for people to really understand what are the limits of their own perspectives, their own conceptual blinders, and at least have a good enough road map that they know what disciplines and what kind of people will have complimentary skills and values, so I really believe that embedded in the PhD has to be a real piece of philosophy.

Julie Gould

Now, like Suzanne Ortega, Paula Stephan said in the first episode of this series that it’s no good piling on more and more skills training onto the PhD candidates. There needs to be some sort of flexibility. But how do you build the flexibility into the PhD training to allow the candidates to design their own PhD, and should there be a limit to this flexibility? Now, flexibility looks different in different programmes, departments, universities and countries, says Jonathan Jansen, a professor of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, who I also met at this meeting after he delivered his keynote speech.

Jonathan JansenSo, even in the United States, for example, when I studied at Cornell University, I could do any courses and still get my degree. At Stanford, they had a very structured programme, and so on. So, it’s partly finding out what exists, adjusting, and sometimes that’s difficult to an open access programme as opposed to a required set of modules programme, finding out what the pros and cons are because you’re never going to get a perfect fit in terms of the design of a programme, but what works for you. Finding out, for example, whether working professional people, whether I can come in on weekends and do block courses as opposed to the requirement that I be there every Monday and Wednesday at 9am. So, it’s trying to figure out, in terms of your own lifestyle, your own working and domestic oddities, what kinds of programme designs work for you. I think universities around the world are realising now that they need to design. So, if you take an MBA programme, I know there’s many universities right now saying we need three kinds of MBAs – the one that you can do only online, there’s a market for that, the one that is a mixed, blended approach to learning and the other which is traditional for the student who wants to come in for a year and finish the MBA. So, universities, purely out of self-interest by the way, are themselves adjusting their higher degrees, precisely because one size does not fit all in this case.

Julie Gould

And at this same meeting, I met Liezel Frick, the director of and associate professor in the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Now, she believes that although flexibility is a good thing, you do need to keep in mind what the ultimate goal of the PhD is.

Liezel Frick

And I get the point around flexibility and I do buy into it but up to a certain point because in the end, what is a PhD? It is still a research focused degree or qualification. You still have to make an original contribution to your field of knowledge, otherwise it becomes a CPD programme, it becomes kind of a continuing professional development that you can do in odds and ends and bits and pieces all over the show, but you never really get to the core of it, which is a substantive research contribution. And to my mind, that still needs to be emphasised and it still needs to be at the core of what the PhD is about.

Julie Gould

But what If we took a blank slate and completely revolutionised PhD training? What would it look like? I asked this question to many attendees at the Revisiting Forms and Forces of Doctoral Training meeting in Hanover in September, and here is UCL’s David Bogle’s point of view.

David Bogle

It’s about them being much more clearly part of a community and not isolated so that they are part of cohort. They’re part of lots of different communities and that is respected and rewarded, rather than looked down on. At the moment, there’s a certain amount of – not everybody – I’m the supervisor, you need to be looking to me as the primary source of inspiration, when in fact, I think the source of inspiration comes from peers, it comes from professional communities, it comes from training activities, it comes from cross-disciplinary activities and to be really opening that out because what they really need to be doing is at the end, it has to be their own ideas that they’re able to defend because that’s at the heart of the PhD, that’s what’s special about it. It’s got to be an original thought of mine or the candidate’s that they can really argue through, produce the evidence and really defend not only to their peers but also to the world outside. So, I don’t think it needs to change hugely, but it needs to be more of a collaborative exercise and less seen as a hierarchical exercise and I guess also, that they’re really brought into the research community right from the start. At the moment, they feel second-class citizens.

Julie Gould

Now, some argue that one of the more positive changes that has been made over the last few decades in PhD training is an increase in the involvement of industry partners in the PhD, whether this be in the form of a joint PhD or just an opportunity for a PhD researcher to spend some time in industry and to see how the other half lives. And given the need for more societal impact that is required of research, Julian Kirchherr, an academic researcher at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, thinks this needs to be taken a step further. His idea for working out the direction of the PhD is to get all stakeholders – so this would be the PhD researcher, their supervisor and someone from a related industry – locked in a room to hash out what the interesting and useful questions to ask would be during that PhD.

Julian Kirchherr

And I think that that is really something that is key in terms of how to structure the PhD if you want to go into more flag route to come out with something that’s valuable to the scholarly as well as to the practitioner community. And I think later on, what’s important is that you don’t just kind of have this kick off with everyone involved, but you make sure that every few weeks or every few months, depending on the research topic, we actually touch base with everyone again and you give updates to everyone and you collect feedback also on early drafts, in terms of what do they think, so that everybody involved in the project can inject their knowledge and then create a research product out of this that is relevant and interesting to all practitioners, to all parties, including the academics involved.

Julie Gould

Now, changing the PhD training system has been talked about for a really long time, and many groups of experts have gathered and published multiple papers to make changes and reforms to doctoral training. But how much of this change actually filters through to the PhD researcher experience? Researchers themselves have been complaining about their training experience for as many years as there have been changes, so is all this change actually having an effect? Now, Nature recently ran a PhD survey to find out exactly what the PhD experience is, and this is something that we will explore in a later episode in the series. But one of the groups of people who can really make changes at this level are the researchers themselves, and Sarah Masefield is one of those. She founded the PhD Survival Project at the University of York. With this group, she hopes to help researchers navigate their way through their PhD without feeling lost, hopeless and alone, and instead come out having enjoyed their time. So, I asked Sarah how PhD researchers can pull together to start influencing change in their immediate research environment.

Sarah Masefield

I can only talk from my own experience I think, in confidence anyway, and I suppose what we have done demonstrates that you can, as PhD students, get together and you can demonstrate that there is a need for something that then the university will maybe give you some sort of seed funding for, and from that it can grow so that there is more institutional buy-in. So, we now, starting from being me developing this project, we now have about 30 people who have been involved in the project, maybe a few more. We’ve got more people all the time trying to get involved. So, that’s a mass of PhD students, and then all the people who have attended and given feedback as well, so I guess it’s growing the voice that we have so we have a bit more clout with trying to make demands, so to speak, from the university, and then from there, the university has now just agreed to establish a postgraduate researcher student liaison officer. It’s a to an extent funded position to do what my role has been voluntarily for the last year, so this clearly demonstrates that PhD students can have some power, do have some power, but we do need to be vocal and we do need to sort of mobilise on mass, in a way.

Julie Gould

Thank you to Suzanne Ortega, Jonathan Jansen, Liezel Frick, David Bogle, Julian Kirchherr and Sarah Masefield for contributing to this episode, and thanks to you for listening. I’m Julie Gould.


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