International Conference in Developments in Doctoral Education and Training- day two

The second day opened with a talk from Janet Metcalfe on developing world-class researchers. As I go to a lot of Vitae events I was familiar with a lot of her talk and the statistics she included, but it was interesting to see her brief overview of doctoral training in other countries such as South Korea, America and Australia. She bought up the researcher development framework as a solution to challenges in doctoral training, but given the laughter from the room I’m not sure how well this was received…..

I stayed on for a talk from Prof Bernard Schissel of Royal Roads University, Canada, on challenges and issues around the Professional Doctorate. I found a really interesting talk. A lot of what he was saying around the multiplicity of identities in professional doctorate students and the challenges of integrating that into research really linked in with research I’m doing on part-time researchers at Birmingham. Students were anxious around research and writing as they were often coming back to it later in life after a break from academia. They could feel reluctance to act as professional/public intellectuals while still being uneasy about their own levels of knowledge, yet this was a role the university often expected of them.

He also found that students from First Nations families could feel a particular epistemological tension in reconciling traditional ways of knowing with the needs of the academy, and in balancing the influence of and respect for  both their supervisor, and community elders. The university has worked hard to find ways to deal with this, and to find ways to support the unique societal, cultural, academic and professional needs of professional doctorate students overall. They found that supervisors also needed to recognise these tensions and have worked on transmitting this. Often supervisors who were best at supporting professional doctorate students were retired emeritus professors.   Bernard suggested that this could be because they had more life experience to draw on. Definitely something for me to think about how that relates to our own support of part-time researchers, as many of the same issues seem to arise!

I found Prof Dina Iordanova’s talk on her personal experiences of doctoral training and developments and how it related to her own career interesting in its variety. She took a very different route to her peers after graduating with a doctorate and made the point that a PhD is the beginning of a career, a route into a place and the end in and of itself. As someone who also took a non traditional route to get where I am, this really resonated with me. She also made the point that a UK doctorate at between 3-4 years is significantly shorter than most doctorates awarded by American universities (which can easily be 7 years) and that one function of researcher development or doctoral training could be to close this potential skills gap. She cited development of teaching and course design skills and of knowledge and skills around HE admin as areas that PGRs who wanted a career in academia needed to develop. While I know a lot of our PGRs want the opportunity to teach, I’m not sure how many would agree on the admin part!

After lunch I went to a series of short talks on ‘new approaches to doctoral training’. Louisa Lawes of Edinburgh outlined a very intensive-sounding residential summer school for doctoral candidates which included sessions on collaboration, personality profiling and entrepreneurship. Dr Anna Lee talked about different methods of supervisor development. One Belgian university took all their supervisors to a spa! Maybe we should do that here to increase take up…. I did like her point that supervisor development could also be framed as developing research leaders, as a lot of the skills were the same. Now, if only we could find a spa…

The closing talk was a talk on the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, from Dr George E Walker of Cleveland State University. I had to miss the end as we had to leave for the airport, but the beginning of the talk covered a research project on aspects of the doctorate with the aim of identifying what makes excellent researchers, and sharing ideas. The status of the Carnegie Institute meant that Universities were keen to be involved, if even no funding was available.  Sadly I left before he outlined the recommendations, but  apparently the presentation will be on the UKCGE website. I’ll certainly be looking out for them when the conference proceedings are published.

So that was the end of the conference. What did I learn? Well, that many institutions across the sector are seeing the same trends and challenges as we are at Birmingham. That people will generally assume I know what I’m talking about, so I should believe that too. That the doctorate is best seen as a beginning, not an end. And always wear brightly coloured tights. You never know when you might need to use them as a conversation starter.

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International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training-Day one

Last week I went to Edinburgh for the UKCGE conference on Doctoral Education and Training. I’d been nervous the days leading up to it, not for the paper I was presenting, but because it involved a flight and I am, as anyone who has heard me talk about it will know, a nervous flyer.

Luckily the flight passed smoothly and we (me, and Catherine Mills, the UGS manager) made it to the conference venue in time for the second keynote speech, from Slobodan Radicev of Eurodoc. He had some interesting suggestions, including the removal of tenure for senior academics to free up career paths for post-docs; as could be imagined, this provoked murmurs of surprise across the hall! I could see that a lot of other people were tweeting the talk and a friendly Australian delegate next to me gave me the wi-fi code so I could get online. (note to self, when organising a conference, put the wifi code somewhere easy to spot)

The coffee break gave me my first challenge: networking. It’s something I always find hard, as I think a lot of people do. I was doing a scan for familiar faces when I spotted a name I knew. Dr Inger Mewburn, Editor of  The Thesis Whisperer (@thesiswhisperer). Summoning my courage I stopped past to tell her I loved both her tights (fantastic bright pink ones) and her blog!  We had a quick chat about my paper, her blog and the best place to buy coloured tights. Without the ‘in’ of being able to read the blog (which is fantastic) I would never have had the courage to say hello. I think this is one of the ways social media and blogs can really help at conferences – it gives people an excuse to talk to you and helps to make the initial introducing yourself aspect less awkward. It certainly did for me, at least!

Collaboration was the theme of the next three panels. I found Dr Irene Sheridan’s talk on how partners (in her example, industry partners) can support the creation of doctoral knowledge interesting, particularly as regards how we can recognise the learning and development that happens outside the University, and how this learning and development can be articulated. I wondered if the Researcher Development Framework could have a part to play in establishing a common vocabulary of skills.  Both the talk on collaborative skills training between the Universities of Aarhus and Edinburgh  and Dr Emer Cunningham’s talk on the Dublin Regional Education Alliance mentioned accredited skills training, something we traditionally haven’t done at Birmingham (although this is changing for some PGRs with the Postgraduate Certificate in Advanced Research Methods and Skills). While both talks were clear on the benefits of collaborative approaches to skills development, they also spoke of some of the challenges, particularly around administration across multiple sites.  I really liked the suggestion around specific sessions on academic relationships for International students, to help them acclimatise to the UK (or Danish, in the case of Aarhus) academic environment, although I think care must be taken to make sure attendees on such sessions don’t feel singled out. If you’re an international PGR, what kind of specific workshop would you have found useful at the beginning of your study?

My workshop, on academic writing, was after lunch. It covered some of the research and mapping on academic writing development I did last year, and outlined some of the changes we made as a result of that.  The room was pretty full, although of course some people might have been there to see the other talks on digital literacies or reflexive writing.

Although I only had ten minutes I felt like it went really well, and I had some interesting questions asked in the session.  It was also quite personally and professionally validating as I felt like I was one of the few people there without a higher degree, yet people took me and my work seriously and assumed I knew what I was talking about!  It was a nice antidote to the imposter syndrome I can quite often feel in these contexts, and we had a bit of an interesting discussion about how we can support Supervisors, as well as PGRs, in this area.  You can see the Prezi I used here 

I had more people approach me during to break to ask more questions about my research and recommendations, and what we are starting to do here at Birmingham. It definitely made me feel more involved in the conference and in the community, and meant I didn’t just lurk by the coffee table trying to work out how to talk to people. For that reason, if no other, I’d really recommend trying to give a conference paper, and I’m already considering topics for the Vitae international conference in September.

The day ended with a plenary on the Australian Cooperative Research Centre by Nigel Palmer and Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette) and a keynote by Alexandra Bitusikova on developments in doctoral education in Europe. Both sessions looked at doctoral training  and measuring the impact of doctoral education and training. I was surprised (and not a little disheartened!) by one of Rachael’s findings, which said Australian Universities trained PhD students but then were not happy with the standard of PhD graduates they employed! I’m not aware of similar research being done in UK universities (if anyone is, please point it out to me) but this seems a slightly disturbing conclusion;  if even universities are not happy with the skills of PhD graduates, how does this affect those seeking work outside of academia? How should it impact on the kind of researcher development activities we offer?

The conference dinner was held in a gorgeous room in the Royal College of Surgeons, and included an impromptu lesson on Rococo architecture and plaster work from Inger, who ended up sitting at my table, along with Rachael.  Something Rachael said over dinner really struck me. I mentioned that I often feel out of place at events like these  because I’m not an academic. It can be hard to let myself ‘own’ my expertise and get over the feeling of being an imposter, that people will find out that really I don’t know what I’m talking about. She pointed out that a lot of people feel like this, and in fact, question what you know and how you know it is a really important part of academia. Anyone who doesn’t sometimes fear they don’t know everything probably isn’t very good at their job! It wasn’t an angle I’d considered before and it’s one I’m going to think more about.

So that was day one. Day two will be up later in the week if I can swing it. But in the mean time, what are your conference experiences? Do you find networking as tough as I sometimes do? And what do you do about imposter syndrome?