Best practice for preparing PhD students

As a plethora of universities across the globe continue to generate increasing numbers of PhDs, governments are beginning to ask if it is time to slow down the production line.

China is the world leader in producing PhDs, outnumbering the United States on a per year basis for the first time in 2008. The Asian giant has awarded more than 240,000 doctorates in the past 30 years.

Despite an increase in the graduation rate, employers continuously bemoan the lack of creativity and research skills of graduates, but in the same breath continue to recruit them, albeit mainly large firms.

Smaller businesses that are thought to benefit more from hiring graduates have alienated themselves from working with universities and cling to the old view that such graduates' focus is too narrow and they have too little to offer.

In effect, the employment opportunity for PhD graduates is becoming problematic, and that has led graduates to question the quality and the relevance of their training.

These issues have been stimulating debate about PhD education among stakeholders - universities, policy-makers and employers, to mention just a few.

So what should be done, as many PhD graduates are unable to find academic positions and a high proportion of them find themselves in casual or part-time positions?

Good practice

To address this, the League of European Research Universities, or LERU - an association founded in 2002 of 21 leading research intensive universities that produce over 12% of Europe's doctoral graduates - shared a number of good practice elements in doctoral training, in a report published in November 2013.

The report set out how universities are producing creative, critical, autonomous, intellectual risk-takers in ways that go well beyond preparing them for a life in academia.

The report indicates that over half of doctoral graduates in the United Kingdom go into jobs outside academia immediately on graduating. The figure for France is similar and for Germany even higher.

In addition, it points out that non-academic careers fairs and advice for researchers are well developed at, among other institutions, Freiburg, Utrecht and Pierre and Marie Curie universities as well as at the UK members of LERU: University College London, or UCL, Imperial, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. No information was found for the University of Milan, the only representative of Italy in LERU.

The report contains four parts - 'formal research training', 'activities driven by doctoral candidates', 'career development', and 'concepts and structures' - and documents the best practice elements in doctoral training at LERU universities.

Formal research training

Within 'formal research training', it discusses intellectual skills such as synthetic thinking, creativity and risk-taking practices among LERU members.

By way of example, in formal research training UCL offers a series of master-class workshops under its skills development programme whereby it invites eminent academic researchers to talk and interact with new researchers in order to inspire research activities.

Similarly, Imperial College London undertook a project to better support early career researchers in doing creative research, particularly seeking to encourage them to 'think big'. It developed three good practice guides: one for supervisors, one for postdocs and one for doctoral researchers.

Oxford University has developed a research skills toolkit to support researchers in their work, presented in a way that connects the tools to particular stages in the research cycle.

'Formal research training' also includes academic skills - managing uncertainty, scholarly networking, understanding the high-level research-intensive environment, knowledge exchange-transfer, and ethical principles.

Among the examples are kickstart to academic life at Lund University, academic professionalism at the University of Utrecht, bioethical training at the University of Barcelona, and the 'open' programme at UCL.

Personal and professional skills cover research project management, communicating complex concepts, teamwork and leadership in research, teaching, conference organisation, collaboration, and communication with non-specialists.

There are many programmes, such as leadership in action and people management at UCL and LMU Munich, developing mental toughness through the PhD and communication, engagement and policy at UCL, understanding decision-making preferences and commercial awareness for science and engineering researchers at Oxford, qualification courses for PhD candidates and postdocs at Zurich, combining commitment and flexibility at the University of Amsterdam, the individual training plan at Pierre and Marie Curie, and entrepreneurship at KU Leuven and Barcelona.

Skills assessment

The second part of the report, 'activities driven by doctoral candidates', includes activities targeting skills awareness and self-assessment.

For that, initiatives abound, such as skills review and training needs analysis at Oxford, online research student log at UCL, researcher-led initiative fund at Edinburgh, and feedback by PhD candidates at the University of Amsterdam.

Then there are candidate-led activities such as the Doctoral Candidate Association's Doc'Up project at Pierre and Marie Curie, networking at the University of Freiburg, involvement in governance, funding for self-initiated, self-organised, interdisciplinary projects and peer-mentoring groups at Zurich, doctoral candidate-led networking and conference organisation at Oxford, early scientific independence, group building and cooperative supervision at Heidelberg, the International Graduate Academy at Freiburg, train and engage at UCL, and funding initiatives at LMU Munich.

Finally, there are international doctoral candidate networks such as internationalisation at home at KU Leuven, international partnership programmes at Freiburg, training scientists from developing countries at LMU Munich, international professional skills development opportunities and research placements at Imperial College London, and the European plant science retreat for PhD students at Universite Paris-Sud.

Career development

With regard to career development, the experience of LERU universities has included non-academic, academic and intersectoral activities.

Promotion of non-academic careers varies among LERU members.

In this respect UCL is very active among LERU universities. For example it designed PhD employer forums and employer-led careers skills workshops in which research students received opportunities to hear from and network with employers from all areas of the labour market. A panel of speakers who themselves are PhD holders are invited to talk about their sectors, career progression, essential workplace skills and the best routes into these positions.

The University of Freiburg does the same at its annual career fair Head & Hands, in addition to several doctoral training programmes such as career evenings, career days or career talks with external speakers from the private sector and research institutions.

Another example is the University of Utrecht where PhD candidates in the penultimate year of their PhD can explore different career options in a two-day PhD activating career event programme.

In a similar vein, the University of Oxford has developed a 'four steps to career success' programme for doctoral students. It comprises four workshops: career planning, networking skills, CV and cover letter skills and interview skills. Other activities include a survey of graduate destinations at Pierre and Marie Curie University, and the use of questionnaires at Lund University.

The preparation for academic careers at Oxford takes place in the Oxford Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) where preparation for academic practice is supported for early career academics, particularly through training for teachers through staged progression.

Likewise, Amsterdam provides a teaching skills course covering presentation skills, advanced academic writing, building an academic career and blogging and Twitter for academics, in addition to the possibility of getting an appointment of six months as a junior lecturer, something many PhD candidates make use of.

From the intersectoral perspective, Oxford set up OUIIP - the Oxford University International Internship Programme - within its career service in 2008 to provide students with access to international work experience.

It offers summer internships with companies of all shapes and sizes all over the world. The university has found that the best opportunities are generated where there is an existing relationship with the partner institute. The three key routes for generating internships have been: Oxford alumni and educational and business partners.

The Student Consultancy at Oxford is another programme of learning and development activities that links the university to local organisations. It is an innovative free access programme in which students from all disciplines and year levels work in teams to address a strategic issue or business problem affecting local businesses and organisations.

The consultancy is not specifically for research students but 10% to 15% are doctoral candidates. It works well for doctoral students because it gives them work experience yet only requires a few hours away from their studies each week.

A similar programme is HELO - Higher Education London Outreach - at UCL. HELO aims to give students experience in working directly with a business. Students work on specific consultancy programmes and get to build networks and links with the business industry.

BioNews Internships - science news reporting for research students at UCL - is also a good addition. The university, graduate schools and Progress Educational Trust provide an opportunity for life sciences, biomedical sciences and law research students interested in science communication and legal and ethical issues arising from scientific developments to gain practical news writing experience under expert supervision.

Last but not least, the report discusses the 'concepts and structures' of graduate and doctoral schools and centres, national and international collaboration schemes, interdisciplinary training structures and other initiatives.

Building diverse programmes

Building on these premises, good practice is wide-ranging: it varies from a four-day entrepreneurship module with training and business plan development at KU Leuven to funding research network events with speakers from academia and industry driven entirely by doctoral candidates at Zurich.

The report spotlights many more examples from leadership development to research project management.

Many universities provide a diverse programme that allows doctoral candidates to attend the events they think will most benefit them since they must guide their own development as future research professionals. Much guidance will come from their research supervisors, but this gives them plenty of additional opportunities.

There is more to be done to improve doctoral training further. Employers, universities and governments all have a role to play.

For example, employers should work closely with universities in shaping and delivering training, which will also help them appreciate how training of doctoral graduates has changed. In addition, they should recognise that frontier research is the core business of research-intensive universities with a key role in ensuring competitiveness and prosperity.

Universities play a key role and have to provide a well-rounded professional development programme that enables doctoral students to put together their own personalised training. Universities should also have systems allowing students to track and assess their own development, with guidance, and promote innovation in research training and sharing of best practice.

Additionally, they should engage with employers in training and research so they are clear about what employers want and so employers have a better understanding of the academic research world.

Government and funders also have an important role to play. They should ensure that funded programmes demonstrate effectiveness in developing research skills, and support programmes that encourage intellectual risk-taking.

* Meysam Salimi is a research fellow at ADAPT - the Association of International and Comparative Studies in Labour and Industrial Relations - and a PhD candidate at the University of Bergamo in Italy, with research interests in vocational education and work, university-to-employment transition, and assessment of learning outcomes and training. This article was first published by FareDottoratoit.