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.