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  • NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: Team PhD

Overhead view of a rowing team

Julie Gould discusses how the science PhD can be more team based, and how doctoral programmes in other academic disciplines have changed.

Is science ready for "Team PhD", whereby a group of students work more collaboratively, delivering a multi-authored thesis at their end of their programme?

Jeanette Woolard, who recently secured a £4.5m Wellcome Trust grant to fund a four-year collaborative doctoral training programme in her lab at the University of Nottingham, UK, believes it could happen one day.

"The team driven PhD is not a distant dream. It's a soon-to-be fulfilled reality," Woolard, a professor of cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology, tells Julie Gould. "If you give it enough of an incentive and wave the flag hard enough for team science, it will come."

Woolard's Wellcome grant allows four graduate students to have their own research focus, but to work collaboratively. "Each of the individual candidates are still pursuing an individual PhD and they will each write up an individual thesis at the end of their four year period of study," she says, arguing that the scientific community and students themselves aren't yet ready for programmes that culminate in a team focused thesis. "I think individual students still either like the idea or deserve the opportunity to defend their own piece of work at the end of their studies."

The new programme at Nottingham, she says, provides students with "the most collaborative environment possible, and the opportunity to work together as much as they can, to utilise as many skills as are available, and to really experience a dynamic, collaborative team-driven environment."

She adds: "Ultimately that's what there are going to experience especially if they go into industry or pursue excellence in academia. Our best outputs now are judged as being multidisciplinary."

A team thesis may be some way off in science, but what about other disciplines? Jill Perry is Executive Director at the Carnegie Project. She tells Gould how the project is helping to redefine the education doctorate in the US.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03685-z

Transcript

Julie Gould discusses how the science PhD can be more team based, and how doctoral programmes in other academic disciplines have changed.

Julie Gould

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode asks whether the future of the PhD, like science, could be based in teamwork.

Now, in the previous episode, David Bogle from University College London made the point that PhD candidates need to be brought into the scientific community and not to feel like they are left alone to fend for themselves in a competitive environment. Now, one way to do this is to think about how science is actually done and to embed this into the PhD training system. Scientific research is no longer the endeavour of a single person. Just like any other role, it requires a team of people. Now, team science is the collaborative effort to address scientific and often global challenges, and many governments, publics and other stakeholders are encouraging scientists to get involved in bigger picture global problems – climate change, global health etc. But these problems can’t be done by just one research field, let alone one scientist. These challenges are tackled by large, interdisciplinary and often international collaborations and networks of people. So, if science has fundamentally become a team effort, can this filter down into PhD training? Can a PhD be done as a team? Now, when I wrote my article for Nature on how to build a better PhD in 2015, David Golan, who is the dean of graduate education at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, was considering engraining teamwork more deeply into the graduate school experience. I couldn’t get hold of Professor Golan for this podcast, but I did have a chance to speak to Jill Perry. She’s the executive director of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate in the USA and a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate has been working since 2007 to redefine the education doctorate, and in that time, they have explored different ways of doing the doctorate. So, Jill told me a little bit about how some of the institutions she works with have incorporated teamwork into their education doctorate via a group dissertation model.

Jill Perry

So, there’s a couple of different features in these. There are places where students are put together by the faculty, there are places where students come together on their own, some of the faculties vet what the students are going to do ahead of time and assign them, in other places, students are supposed to find those problems, but the goal is that they’re working collaboratively just as they would in practice to understand and solve problems. Let me think of the first example I have. So, consultancy model is one of those, where the faculty vet contracts that come in from local school districts or universities or educational organisations that want to have a group come in and assess and evaluate some work that they’ve been doing. So, for instance, a school district might come in and say we want to have a team of your students come out and assess our new reading programme that we’ve implemented for the last year. So, the faculty will vet these and they will say great idea, this one will work, and then they put together teams of students who would be interested in doing that. So, those teams of students then have a process that they go through where they are trained in evaluation and they go out as a team over a year and they gather data from the organisation in which they are working, and then they put together a final report and evaluation with recommendations and that is presented to both their faculty as well as the organisation they work for. All of that is done in teams and they divide up the work. Each takes a different piece and then they write the final product together. Another model is where a group of students will come together on their own because they have similar interests in something and they want to focus their work together but also a little bit separately, so they might come together and explore the literature together around a similar problem, they might focus on one institution, one school they want to go in to together, but then look at the problem differently and do separate studies and sort of write a chapter that is a different study of each but then they have sort of the opening together and the end conclusions together and so it’s been written both together and individually.

Julie Gould

And how are these teams assessed?

Jill Perry

That is different at every institution. That was one of our big concerns. Many faculties said, well, how do you know, and I think one of the biggest answers was when you get to that level of doctorate education, the students are holding themselves accountable and so everyone is assigned what they’re doing and the group knows who’s not doing what, so that’s one of the big pieces, that they hold each other accountable the same way they would in practice, in their work setting. The faculty generally have mechanisms to be able to understand at the onset what student is taking on what part and then during their proposal phase as well as their defence phase, they have to describe the pieces that they took on individually and how they tackle that work, and so it’s a very closely run process with faculty, so they understand where the students are and what they’re doing, but then a lot of it really is the students holding each other accountable for it. They all get the same, I don’t want to say grade because they don’t necessarily get grades, but their graduation and their doctorates depend on everybody pulling their weight and working together.

Julie Gould

Has there been a situation where in a team someone hasn’t pulled their weight? Does the whole group then not get awarded the doctorate or is just that one person not awarded the doctorate?

Jill Perry

I don’t know for 100% sure how that works, but my guess would be that it wouldn’t reach the defence without someone having said so-and-so isn’t pulling their weight. So, I do know a faculty who have had to have interventions and talk to students and have removed people from groups if things haven’t worked, but they’re not necessarily waiting until setting the defence for somebody to say Joe didn’t do anything, so that kind of stuff is embedded in the process throughout the year-long dissertation work.

Julie Gould

Do you think this sort of dissertation would work in other disciplines like the sciences?

Jill Perry

I think it depends on what the goal is. So, if the goal is to create faculty members who are collaborative in the work that they do, say, in community engaged scholarship, then it may be a good thing, right, because right now the PhD tends to train us to be siloes, to focus on our own work, to be competitive against one another because ultimately, we’re going to a university, we’re trying to get tenure, and so we need to prove ourselves and we don’t want to get stuck in the mess of dealing with Joe’s not pulling his weight kind of thing. But if you’re thinking more about as we have here with the PhD in social sciences and making that work more applied, then when you think about applied, you start to think about the impact you have on communities and peoples’ lives, and how else are you going to have greater impact than if you have teamwork being done on that? So, if you think of like team-based healthcare, right, when you go into a hospital, bringing in different people with different perspectives to assess a patient, why couldn’t something like that be done in a PhD programme to gain a better understanding of a whole system within a scientific realm of whatever you’re looking at.

Julie Gould

Now, the team dissertation might not be happening yet in the natural sciences, but team-oriented PhDs are. In September this year, the Wellcome Trust announced the PhD programmes it was going to fund, and one of the teams this year is led by Jeanette Woolard from the University of Nottingham. She was awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust to run a team science PhD focused on drug discovery, the first of its kind in the UK. So, in this programme, each year, four candidates will come together as a team on to her programme to do a PhD in cancer angiogenesis, but each researcher will have a different background and set of skills and work together as a team. So, I wanted to know what this PhD is going to look like.

Jill Perry

Right, so the four candidates will have their own focus, but the idea is that each of their projects will be related and connected to other projects. So, for example, if the students are studying a particular type of receptor associated with cancer, then they will be using related either technologies or related drugs and drug candidates to investigate within their systems how the new models are functioning and what the readouts are telling them about their particular area of research. So, for example, if a student is working on the receptor for vascular endothelial growth factors – this is a growth factor that’s really important in cancer angiogenesis and it’s a target of many novel therapeutics that aim to block VEGF signalling and stop the growth of blood vessels in and around a tumour – and so if you have a student who’s working on mathematical modelling and systems, pharmacology and more of a bioinformatics approach, they might come up with a mathematical model for how angiogenesis is working that they would like to test in a particular system. And they’ll be speaking to a student who’s maybe working on that in terms of how a new drug or ligand that they’ve developed is interacting with that receptor, and so the two of them would then have some discussion about studies that could be set up that are mutually beneficial to both projects. And there might be aspects of one that goes into one thesis and aspects of the other that goes into the other thesis, but it’s about that open communication to enhance both projects.

Julie Gould

Would they then maybe work together with another third student who would do the physical experiments and then produce the results?

Jill Perry

Yes, exactly, and so you can see how there’s almost like a cyclical approach to it and so there may be that the student that’s working more in cells develops a construct as a consequence of those interactions, so somebody’s modelling something, somebody’s testing something in the cell, gives it to another person who’s testing it in an isolated blood vessel, gives it to somebody who then tests it in a whole system, and although they’re working on seemingly distinct aspects, they’re all related and the whole team together is able to deliver a much bigger, more impactful output because there is a relationship between and amongst the four of them.

Julie Gould

Okay.

Jill Perry

And of course, once it gets through the system, it may be that they say actually, we need this tweaking and so that feeds back into the modelling system to enhance that project, and it could be from the whole systems side or it could be from the cells side and so that the modelling system is then looked at and changed and developed, rather than it simply being a mathematical modelling system that they hope one day might be tested, but that goes beyond the scope of that study.

Julie Gould

And so, how does it work then when it comes to assessing these PhD candidates and how is that done in relation to team science?

Jill Perry

This was something that we discussed quite extensively and what I need to make quite clear is that each of the individual candidates are still pursuing an individual driven PhD and they will individually write up their thesis at the end of their four-year period of study based largely around contributions that they have made to their own independent pursuits. There will of course be, for example, the opportunity where a student might develop a construct and that construct might then go on and be utilised by another student in a different system, and to help take that second project forward or to help take it in a slightly novel direction, but each of the students will still come out with their own independent PhD. It is team driven by the support and the network that underpins it.

Julie Gould

Okay, so it’s not like a group of researchers who will be publishing a paper together as they would publish a PhD thesis together, that’s now how you’re approaching this?

Jill Perry

No, and we have had to be very clear about that at this time. I think that the wider community perhaps isn’t ready for a team-driven PhD output, and I think individual PhD students still perhaps either like the idea or deserve the opportunity to defend their own piece of work at the end of their studies, but what we do want to provide them with is the most collaborative environment possible, where they have the opportunity to work together as much as they can, to utilise as many skills as are available and to really experience a collaborative, dynamic, team-driven environment because ultimately, that’s what they’re going to experience, especially if they go into industry or pursue excellence in academia. Our best outputs now are judged as being multidisciplinary.

Julie Gould

Why do you believe that the wider community is not ready for something like a team-published PhD thesis?

Jill Perry

I think it comes down to teasing out and having policies or the mechanisms to dissect out what contribution actually means to a team-driven exercise. It’s quite easy to see when an individual has written up their three or four experimental chapters front-ended and back-ended by an introduction and a decent discussion. You can see that that individual has contributed significantly to the field, and there is a sense of ownership for them and for the institution over the document that then becomes their published thesis. On a team-driven exercise, I guess questions would be asked about the size, the length, and how you would tease out the degree of contribution, and I suppose at the moment those decisions about how that is judged perhaps hasn’t really been discussed at length.

Julie Gould

Why can’t there be a thesis with more than one author for a PhD?

Jill Perry

Well, I think it’s just a matter of time and changing culture and I think that if you give it enough of an incentive and wave the flag hard enough for team science, that it will come, and I think that the team driven PhD is not as distant dream. It’s a soon-to-be fulfilled reality.

Julie Gould

Thank you to Jill Perry and Jeanette Woolard for contributing to this episode, and thank you to you for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

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