Welcome to the May issue of Teaching Matters on the PhD experience

main image cropTeaching Matters is the University of Edinburgh’s website for debate about learning and teaching, for sharing ideas and approaches to teaching, and for showcasing our successes, including academic colleagues who are leading the way in delivering brilliant teaching. Every month Teaching Matters takes a theme and explores it through a number of blog contributions over the month. We also run an events listing page.

The focus for May is the PhD experience. This year, the British PhD celebrates its 100th birthday.  Over those 100 years the PhD has changed almost beyond recognition, with the majority of changes occurring over the last couple of decades.  In the 20th century, the PhD was essentially an academic apprenticeship based entirely on a supervised research project.  At the turn of the century, the pure apprenticeship model came under pressure, with a push for more professionalism of doctoral education and more structured delivery of skills training that prepares doctoral graduates for careers in academia or, increasingly, in a wide range of non-academic professional activities or entrepreneurial ventures.

The purpose of a doctorate, according to a recent paper by the League of European Research Universities, is:

to take bright Masters graduates with an excellent academic track record to become creative, critical, autonomous researchers (Doctoral degrees beyond 2010: Training talented researchers for society. LERU March 2010).

There are currently more PhD students in the UK than at any time in the past.  Of these students, a tiny proportion will go on to academic careers, while the majority will follow careers outside academia.

The Oxford Statement acknowledged this in 2015:

As creators of new knowledge, new insights and new approaches, doctoral award holders are highly intelligent, highly skilled and extremely versatile. It is recognised that such individuals can successfully enter a broad range of careers. Doctorate holders make a substantial contribution to the skilled workforce essential for the knowledge economies of the 21st century.

In order to prepare doctoral graduates for an increasingly diverse job market, the 21st century has seen a shift towards increased structure in doctoral training programmes, incorporating initial, and continuing, training in transferable skills.  However, this trend towards more and more formal training is eroding the time available for the research project and the “on-the job” development of those very skills most prized by employers.

For those businesses that employ staff with PhDs, such is the value placed on their specialist knowledge, research skills and problem-solving ability, that three quarters of employers taking part in the research said their loss would have either a business critical or significant impact on operations. … One in five employers said that doctoral graduates were business critical – without them their business could not function (The impact of doctoral careers, CFE Research on behalf of the UK funding councils, 2014). 

This research demonstrated that the benefits are not restricted to the individual with the PhD; employers reported that doctoral graduates encourage, support and inspire those they work alongside to achieve more and better.  Doctoral graduates ask questions, bring new ideas and knowledge to a company and offer fresh perspectives on old problems.

Against this increasingly complex background, the University of Edinburgh is working to develop an optimal balance of structured and research-based training that develops doctoral graduates equipped for the widest range of careers, including the front-line research for which it is famous.

We hope that you enjoy this edition of Teaching Matters and encourage you to get involved. Future Teaching Matters themes include:

Assessment and Feedback – June 2017

Student-led learning and teaching – July/August 2017

If you’d like to contribute a blog post, video, or other media on any upcoming themes or any teaching-related subject, let us know. Remember, you can also submit details about your event and we can advertise it on Teaching Matters.

Jeremy Bradshaw

Jeremy Bradshaw is Professor of Molecular Biophysics at the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and Assistant Principal of Researcher Development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *