new workshop: adding value to doctoral education

This is a guest post by Dr Billy Bryan a Policy Consultant at Technopolis Group managing projects in higher education, research policy and international development. He is also a workshop facilitator for HEInnovate. He has a PhD in Medical Education from the University of Sheffield, a higher education teaching qualification (PG Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE) and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

It’s increasingly common for UK funders to require a doctoral student to engage with value-adding activities. For example, skills development workshops, public communication activities, and internships to prepare them for academic and (increasingly for) non-academic roles. Universities, and therefore doctoral supervisors, have an obligation then, to ensure that students graduate with a blend of different experiences. 

This blog presents a new opportunity to enhance the value of doctoral degree provision for graduate schools, departments, DTPs, DTCs and all other university groups with responsibility for developing doctoral students. We have developed a workshop that focuses on the national trends around doctoral value and co-creating a strategy for your school/faculty/institution with students, supervisors and professional services staff. 

This addresses the obligation to develop doctoral students described above and helps teams and departments to plan meaningful and relevant value-adding experiences. The workshop is informed by research Dr Kay Guccione and I have published, and our collective 15 years’ experience of leading researcher development and higher education policy.

Want to see the results of this workshop approach yourself? Click here for a testimonial and report by the University of Northampton’s graduate school.

Read on for more on why this workshop is relevant for anyone involved in doctoral education and what it would include. 

Why talk about “value”?

In the UK, graduates make positive social, cultural and economic contributions, and universities, as sites of knowledge creation, play a key role in enabling those contributions. The transfer of graduates from university to business is central to that concept and graduates’ collective knowledge, skills, networking and prestige brings benefits to employers – making doctoral graduates assets of significant value to organisations and the nation

But what about the value to the individual?

The vast range of skills gained through doctoral study and often more lucrative pay packages when in employment compared to non-PhD graduates and master’s graduates are certainly attractive benefits. However, there is a down-side to pursuing a doctorate. 

A doctoral degree does not offer substantial financial reward, especially for women. It can even represent a negative financial investment; it is a period ‘off the pay ladder’ paying tuition fees (for some), prior study loans are not repaid, pension contributions are not made and many more are now not completing within their registration periods. Poor academic career prospects (and pensions), being over-educated (doctorate not required for the subsequent job role) and occupational stress caused by the research environment can all make a student think: “will it be worth it?”

The personal value of doctoral study

Our research asked, as individuals, do PhD graduates experience overall benefit from their doctorate, and how do they perceive its value? We created a conceptual model of doctoral value which shows how the four tenets of universal value (inner circle) are tempered by the four factors most influencing that value perception (outer circle).

Figure 1: Doctoral value model. This figure originally appeared in “Was it worth it? A qualitative exploration into graduate perceptions of doctoral value”, published in Higher Education Research & Development, and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

Graduates, regardless of whether they had an overall positive or overall negative experience, considered their doctorate to have been worth it. Our participants talked us through many benefits on their career, experiences and attributes; the friendships and networks they established; and the positive impact on their views of themselves in a globally connected world. When participants did talk about skills, they told us that it was the “extra-curricular” opportunities that they valued most – personally and professionally.

This work sparked a lot of interest in the doctoral policy sphere, as well as invitations to present the work at a Westminster HE forum, QAA, the UKCGE and the LSE Impact Blog. Phase II of this work (260 long-form survey responses from doctoral graduates) is ongoing and a preview of the results will be presented in your workshop.

How can we add value to the doctorate? The workshop

The half-day workshop is based upon cooperation between the many players with a stake in the doctoral experience. It aims, through integrative stakeholder consultation, to produce a co-created action plan for understanding value and adding value to the doctoral experience. It could also be combined with alumni input, employer panels or similar activities focusing on doctoral futures.

All materials are provided, and all of the below activities form the workshop’s structure.

Preparation: We will start with a pre-conversation with the institutional lead for the workshop, about your specific institutional context, your cohort(s) of students and what outputs and outcomes you require from the workshop.

Setting the scene: The workshop will begin with a short presentation of our key findings on the value of the doctorate, trends in the UK context, literature underpinning the workshop and a primer for the subsequent parallel sessions. 

Mapping: Mixed groups of students and supervisors/academics/professional services staff (alumni, employers) will split off into parallel discussion groups. Each will work on the different domains of doctoral value, identifying who is responsible for the different facets of value. Ideas are mutually agreed in the group and recorded on bespoke planning templates.

Working together: All participants will come back together in a plenary to sum up their ideas. Interactive voting will then be used to help collectively prioritise the added-value solutions. This forms the second stage of co-creation.

Action planning: After a short break, participants are mixed into new groups to develop action plans for each solution (intended outcomes, responsible group, communications plan, timeline etc.). 

Final pitch and commitment: Action plans are presented back to the whole group and tricky aspects are discussed. The facilitators will sum up the whole day, presenting their views and feedback on these plans and ensuring participants are action orientated.

Reflection and action: The data collected through notetaking, action plans and voting are used for a final debrief, ideally done a week or so after the event, with the institutional lead. This will talk through what the concrete next steps are for you overall and advice on how to plan and measure those will be offered.

If you are interested in organising a workshop for your institution, please get in touch for an initial discussion and quote. If you are a student, supervisor, academic, professional services staff member, or anyone else interested in digging deeper into doctoral education, please do forward this blog on to your doctoral school convenors, managers and directors.

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