Good practices in doctoral training – a presentation of LERU Report

by Meysam Salimi


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, outnumbered 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 the increase in the graduation rate, employers continuously bemoan the lack of creativity and research skills of graduates and in the same breath retreat to recruiting them, albeit some large firms. The smaller enterprises that are thought to benefit more from these spin-offs have alienated themselves from working with universities, cling to the old view that such graduates’ focus is too narrow and they have too little to offer. In effect, employment opportunity for PhD graduates is becoming problematic, that led the graduates to question about the quality and the relevance of the training. These issues have been stimulating debate about PhD education among the stakes- the universities, policy makers and employers, to mention some.

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 appointment?

To address this, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) – an association of twenty-one leading research intensive universities that produce over 12% of Europe’s doctoral graduates – founded in 2002, shared number of good practice elements in doctoral training in a report published in November 2013 (see in the homepage of this site), 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, over half of doctoral graduates in the UK 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 others, Freiburg, Utrecht, and Pierre & Marie Curie universities as well as at the UK members of LERU: University College London (UCL), Imperial, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. No indications found for 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, Concepts and Structures and documented the best practice elements in doctoral training at LERU universities.

Within Formal Research Training, initially it discussed Intellectual Skills, synthetic thinking, creativity and risk taking practices among LERU members.

By way of example in formal research training, UCL in a series of workshops called Masterclass Inspiring Research under UCL’s Skills Development Program, invites eminent academic researchers to talk and interact with new researchers in order to inspire research activities (http://courses.grad.ucl.ac.uk/). 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 develops three detailed practical guidance (one for supervisors, one for postdocs and one for doctoral researchers). (http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/graduateschool/studentexperience/creative)

By the same token, in Oxford University a Research Skills Toolkit was developed to support researchers in their work, presented in a way which connects the tools to particular stages in the research cycle. The Formal Research Training also includes Academic Skills- managing uncertainty, scholarly networking, understanding of high level research-intensive environment, knowledge exchange/transfer, ethical principles. Among the examples can mention to Kickstart to Academic Life (Lund University), Academic Professionalism (University of Utrecht), Bioethical training (University of Barcelona), and the ‘Open’ Program (UCL). Besides the importance of Personal and Professional- research project management, communicating complex concepts, team work and leadership in research, teaching, conference organization, collaboration and communication with non-specialists is explained. There are many programs  that range from Leadership in Action and People Management in UCL and LMU Munich, developing the mental toughness through the PhD and Communication, engagement and policy (UCL),  Understanding Decision Making Preferences and Commercial Awareness for Science and Engineering Researchers (University of Oxford), Qualification courses for PhD candidates and postdocs (UZH), Combining Commitment and Flexibility (University of Amsterdam), Individual Training Plan (UPMC) to Entrepreneurship in KU Leuven and University of Barcelona.

The second part of the report, Activities Driven by Doctoral Candidates, includes activities targeting Skills awareness and self-assessment. For that, Skills Review and Training Needs Analysis (University of Oxford), On-line Research Student Log (UCL), Researcher-Led Initiative Fund (University of Edinburgh), Feedback by PhD candidates (University of Amsterdam) abound. Then are Candidate-led activities such as Doctoral Candidate Association Doc’Up (UPMC), Networking (University of Freiburg), Involvement in Governance, Funding for self-initiated, self-organized, interdisciplinary projects and peer-mentoring groups (UZH), Doctoral candidate led networking/ conference organization (University of oxford), Early scientific independence, group building, cooperative supervision (University of Heidelberg), International Graduate Academy (University of Freiburg),Train and Engage (UCL), Funding Initiatives (LMU Munich). Finally International doctoral candidate networks (Internationalization at home (KU Leuven), International Partnership programs (University of Freiburg),Training scientists from developing countries (LMU Munich), International professional skills development opportunities and research placements (Imperial College London), European Plant Science Retreat for PhD students  (Université Paris-Sud) are discussed.

Concerning Career Development the experience in LERU universities which included Non-Academic, Academic and Intersectoral activities is a nice point incorporated.

Promotion of non-academic careers varies among LERU members. In this respect UCL is very active among LERU universities, e.g. it designed a PhD Employer Forums and Employer-Led Careers Skills Workshops in which provide research students with opportunities to hear from, and network with, employers from all areas of the labor market. A panel of speakers who themselves are PhD holders are invited to talk about their sectors, their careers’ progression, essential workplace skills and the best routes into these positions. University of Freiburg do the same in its career fair Head & Hands once a year in addition to several doctoral training programs such as career evenings, career days, or career talks with external speakers from the private sector and research institutions. Another example is University of Utrecht where PhD candidates in the penultimate year of their PhD can explore different career options in two days PhD Activating Career Event (PHACE) program.

In a similar vein, University of Oxford develops a Four Steps to Career Success for doctoral students. It comprises four workshops: Career Planning, Networking Skills, CV and Cover Letter Skills, Interview Skills. Among others, developing regular newsletter (IFD – Mag), survey for understanding graduate destinations (UPMC) and public meeting, use of questionnaires in Lund University, to mention some.

The preparation for academic careers in Oxford University take places in the Oxford Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) where Preparation for Academic Practice (http://www.apprise.ox.ac.uk/) devised, developed and embedded support for Oxford’s early career academics, particularly through training for teachers through staged progression. Likewise, University of Amsterdam provides a Teaching Skills course (Presentation Skills, Advanced Academic Writing, Building an Academic Career, and Blogging and Twitter for Academics) in addition to a possibility to get an appointment of six months as a junior university teacher, many PhD candidates make use of this.

From intersectoral perspective, University of Oxford set up OUIIP – Oxford’s International Internship Program- within the Career Service in 2008 to provide the University’s 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, educational and business partners.

The Student Consultancy of Oxford University is another program of learning and development activities that links University of Oxford students to local organizations. It is an innovative and unique and free access program in which students from all disciplines and year levels participate in the program and work in teams to address a strategic issue or business problem affecting the Local SMEs and organizations. The Student Consultancy is not specifically for research students but 10%-15% are doctoral candidates. It works well for doctoral students because it gives them work experience yet only requires them to take a few hours away from their studies each week.

Another program in this perspective is HELO – Higher Education London Outreach in UCL. HELO aims to give UCL students experience in working directly with a business. Students work on specific consultancy programs and get to build their own networks and links with the business industry.

BioNews Internships – Science News Reporting for Research Students in UCL is also a good addition. In this university, graduate schools and Progress Educational Trust (PET) provide an opportunity for Life Sciences, Biomedical Sciences and Law research students interested in science communication and legal/ethical issues arising from scientific developments to gain practical news writing experience under expert supervision through BioNews internships. Last but not least, the report discusses the Concepts and Structures of Graduate, Doctoral Schools, Centers, National and International Collaboration Schemes, Interdisciplinary training structures and other initiatives.

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 University to funding research network events with speakers from academia and industry driven entirely by doctoral candidates at Zurich University (UZH). The report spotlights many more examples from leadership development to research project management. Many universities provide a diverse program which allows their 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 if 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 recognize that frontier research is the core business of research intensive universities with a key role in ensuring competitiveness and prosperity. With much in the same role, Universities are the key role and have to provide a well-rounded professional development program that enables doctoral students to put together personalized training. Universities also should 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 will clear what employers want and employers have a better understanding of the academic research world. On the top of that government and funders also have to play an important role. They should ensure funded programs demonstrate effectiveness in developing research skills and support programs that encourage intellectual risk-taking.

Meysam Salimi,

ADAPT Research Fellow,

International Doctoral School in Human Capital Formation and Labour Relations

ADAPT-CQIA

University of Bergamo