By Laura Poole-Warren
At first glance, the statistics might suggest Australia is producing too many doctorates of philosophy. Of the 10,000 or so students who complete their PhD every year only a very small percentage will go on to enjoy an uninterrupted academic career to professor level. But focusing on that misses the point. We are now well past the fork in the road that has led us away from the traditional PhD to academic career pathway.
If Australia wants to attract a reasonable share of the world’s best minds we need to reinvigorate our PhD programs so their value is apparent outside the university sector, where the great majority of our graduates will build their careers. The higher-order problem-solving skills developed by doctoral level research are becoming increasingly relevant in a complex, interconnected world.
In Britain, the process of change began in earnest 15 years ago after the Roberts review concluded that too many PhDs were still being trained for an academic career and life in a research lab when most would go into business, industry or government, or become innovators and entrepreneurs.
About £120 million was invested in developing more generic skills such as project management, leadership, team work and communication. A review of the program found improvements in formalised training and career development for researchers across the board.
To date there has been no sector-wide initiative to breathe new life into PhD programs here, although many universities are implementing a range of interesting and positive individual initiatives.
Last year’s review of the research training system found much to be happy with but there were also notable and telling exceptions. The report described as “extremely concerning” the low levels of collaboration between researchers and industries, noting this was “unacceptable for a nation striving to transition to an innovation-driven economy”.
The Group of Eight universities were blunter in their submission to the review. Among other things, the Go8 declared: “It should be noted that Australia is embarrassingly lagging behind other first-world nations in understanding that PhD graduates, if provided with specialist training in business management, have an enormous amount to offer to industry and business, and therefore the nation’s economy.”
The review encouraged universities to engage with industry and vice versa but stopped well short of proposing any British-style reforms. Navigating the road ahead, then, is up to us.
At the University of NSW we have just embarked on our own experiment that we hope will not only greatly improve our PhD programs, but may contribute to future sector-wide reforms.
We’ve recently launched a global search for the best PhD candidates in our areas of research strength. What we are offering is a structured new PhD program that integrates a comprehensive, compulsory program of career and professional development, along with concurrent engagement with collaborators and end-users of research. The program is individualised to each candidate’s research and training needs. An annual stipend of $40,000 for four years recognises that such intensive career coaching and preparation requires higher levels of support for longer periods.
We will work closely with individual students to connect them with mentors and to enhance their mobility and career options, through industry engagement and other professional education options. The investment by UNSW is considerable at more than $150 million, with 700 scholarships on offer over 10 years.
In a competitive, globalised market for higher degree research, Australian universities need to do two things: train more of our PhDs via comprehensive programs that integrate career development to drive better graduate outcomes, and promote a broader understanding, particularly within business and government, of the value of PhD graduates.
A PhD is — or should be — shorthand for an exceptional individual: someone who can come into many different environments and undertake very complicated analyses to produce solutions; an asset in any profession.
Laura Poole-Warren is pro vice-chancellor (research training) and dean of graduate research at the University of NSW.