Posted tagged ‘PhD’

Doctoral careers

October 7, 2011

When in 1978 one of my lecturers advised me to do a PhD, I followed the advice for one reason only: I had developed a strong curiosity about my proposed research theme (bless my enthusiasm!) and I wanted the opportunity to dig deep. I did not have the slightest concern about what this would do for me in career terms. That was another day’s problem, and right now I was ready to dive into the scholarship pool. If I had taken a moment to think, I’m sure I would have concluded that my post-PhD career options were not that fundamentally different from my pre-PhD ones. In 1978 it was not yet an expectation that academics must have doctorates, and in my field in particular most didn’t. Of course I did become an academic of sorts, but I wasn’t particularly anticipating that as I applied to Cambridge to become a research postgraduate.

Nowadays such unfocused thinking would need to be filed under crazy. If you have the intellectual curiosity and talent to do a PhD, then you’re on your way to a lectureship (or a professorship, for any readers here from TCD, bless you). Or is there some other option? Over recent years universities have seriously increased their intake of postgraduate research students. While I was President of Dublin City University we increased our annual PhD graduations tenfold, and indeed as we did so we were under some pressure from the government to take this even further. The reason for all this was not so that we could appoint more and more academic staff, but because an advanced knowledge economy needs qualified researchers, and lots of them. But in fact I am not talking about doctoral graduates in theology, philosophy, classics or even English; I am talking about areas like biotechnology and electronic engineering.

So does this mean that we want science doctors, but not humanities ones? Probably that is how it is, but we may need to think again. If the intellectual discipline of science research creates useful graduates for careers outside the academy, then there really should be room for humanities researchers also. But exactly who is waiting to recruit theology doctors?

While all this is a complex matter of higher education policy, there have been some interesting suggestions. One of these was made recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, Michael Ruse, is himself an interesting person, being a philosopher of biology. The suggestion he has put out there is that we should reconsider the PhD dissertation, and look at alternative models. This might include replacing the long, scholarly dissertation with shorter pieces that could be subjected to criticism, thus turning the research into something that will be both scholarly and more practical. In fact, this is something that has been pioneered in some taught doctoral programmes, such as the Doctor of Business Administration.

It stands to reason that a degree that a few decades ago catered for a tiny minority of scholars who were in it solely for the intellectual fun cannot absolutely expect to be handled the same way today. We should not lose the cerebral excitement of original research, but we might want to look again at how we expect people to pursue it and how we will assess what they have done. Nothing can stay the same for ever.

Research globalisation and language matters

May 6, 2011

A few months ago, while waiting for a reception to begin, I was chatting to a young man who was registered as a PhD student in one of our universities and who was telling me with great energy and enthusiasm about his research topic. Or at least I think that is what he was doing, because to be honest, his English was not really fluent. He was enormously likeable, and in fact I am sure that his academic and intellectual credentials were impeccable, but his English was not.

Does this matter? Well, there is no doubt that we need to encourage the mobility of researchers, including those doing PhDs. We need to ensure that people have the opportunity to benefit from the exchange of information and ideas, and that they learn to work in international, multicultural teams. But what if there is no real common language? Should that be a barrier? Or perhaps we might also ask that if there is to be a shared language, can we always insist (or even expect) that it is English?

This question is likely to receive further attention as a result of the admission by the University of Derby that 60 per cent of its doctoral students fail to complete their their research and do not proceed to the degree. One of the reasons identified by the university for this state of affairs is that too many of their students do not have sufficient English language proficiency to complete the work.

In fact this has the potential to be a rather complex and sensitive topic, because wrapped up in the language issue there could be subtle points of a racist nature – which is what I am always tempted to expect when the Daily Telegraph climbs on to the bandwagon. But equally we have to take seriously the potential problems caused by an inability to communicate in the language of the research institution.

One unusual take on this issue that I came across recently was the suggestion by an Asian professor that English should be the accepted lingua franca of all global research, and that researchers simply needed to accept that they have to learn English. Is that fair, I asked. Research is a form of language anyway, he replied, and there is no point disseminating it in a form that cannot be read and therefore used and developed by the international community of scholars.

It’s an approach that makes me uneasy. But it may well win out. And maybe it should, I suppose. Perhaps.

Too many doctors? Or too few?

March 11, 2011

Should you ever choose to live in Germany, you will sooner or later come across a person on whose business card you will see that they are ‘Dr Dr’ something or other. It is not even that rare a phenomenon. In this part of the world it is most unusual (but not absolutely unheard of) for anyone to have done two PhDs. In fact, the proliferation of doctorates can be seen in many different settings in Germany. About one third of German parliamentarians are reported to possess a doctoral qualification, for example. More generally, Portugal and Switzerland are the countries in which there are the most doctorates relative to the population. In Portugal nearly 4 per cent of the age cohort now have a doctorate. In comparison, in Britain it is about half that figure.

As countries in the developed world chase companies that might make high value investments, higher qualifications have become a live issue. Not long ago I was asked to talk to representatives of a large company contemplating an investment in Ireland, and I was taken aback when they said they believed that 30 per cent of their Irish workforce would need to have PhDs. The reality is that if this became more than an occasional demand, we would not be able to fulfill it.

Therefore, if a supply of graduates with doctoral qualifications is necessary for economic growth, we had better get moving. And so that such a step would be seen as attractive by a wider selection of people, we had better ensure that the alumni of such programmes will be able to secure appropriate jobs when they graduate, and that we don’t end up with a whole new cohort of over-qualified and under-motivated people.

Becoming a doctor

November 18, 2009

Perhaps this title for the post will mislead some readers, as I am not about to discuss medical education; though that could be for another time. Rather, I want to muse briefly on the the way in which people proceed to a PhD (or other doctorate) by research.

My own PhD began in 1978, when I was applied to the University of Cambridge to do research in law. For the following two years I lived and worked in Cambridge, enjoying the really very fine city, but maybe not appreciating quite as much the cold and windy winters. But it also gave me the first opportunity to experience interdisciplinary discussions, as there was a very lively community of scholars from all areas in my college (Christ’s College). However, I would have to say that beyond conversations with my supervisor I never had any training whatsoever in research methodology. I just gave my supervisor a work plan, and then disappeared into one of the libraries in Cambridge that were relevant to my topic.

In the 1980s, when I was Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, I recruited and supervised a number of PhD students myself – five or six in all, if I recall. Again, none of these had any structured training, and while all my students made it to the end successfully, I also had to assist with two students supervised by other colleagues, who did not take to the work and who found it difficult to pursue their research without methodological training.

All this changed in the 1990s, during which decade I was in the University of Hull in England. The initial change came as research councils began to require universities to have formal training modules in research methods for all funded students, and from this a framework emerged for research degrees. At the same time, some universities began to develop so-called ‘taught’ PhDs or other doctorates, in which there was a programme of instruction in the subject-matter of the degree which, with accompanying exams, would account for a substantial percentage of the overall credit, with a shorter thesis at the end.

There is, I think, room for doctorates that are based on the old PhD model (with methodology training) and for others that are more structured and are based on specific topics and disciplines. But as we increase the admission of doctoral students, we may need to pause to ascertain what the career prospects of all these doctors will be, and in what areas they will fill a national need. The phase during which we simply keep adding to the numbers may need to come to an end, replaced by a more strategic development of such programmes. It may be the case that structured taught doctorates may now meet a greater demand in certain areas than PhDs of the traditional variety; but again we need to look more closely at this agenda.

It is an appropriate time to develop a coherent strategy on doctoral studies.