To the wider world – and that can include policy makers and funding bodies – the experiences of postgraduate researchers are arguably significantly less understood than those of undergraduates.
In proposing a project to map how Scotland’s universities support the postgraduate research experience, it seemed a great idea for the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to bring in a PhD intern to do the work.
So, enter me. As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, I thought the project sounded both relevant and interesting. Within what I consider my “bubble” (that is, my PhD community at Moray House School of Education and Sport), I have always felt relatively isolated from other PGRs.
I also felt I lacked awareness of the “big picture” – what PGR looks like across the country, and how I fitted into that landscape. I was excited to hear how other PGRs’ experiences differed from mine.
The first portion of the project revealed some interesting trends. For example, while PhD and Master by research degrees seem to be the most common PGR degrees undertaken, we identified over 15 types of professional doctorates.
Additionally, smaller institutions tend to have a more even ratio of part time to full time students than larger institutions. This raises questions about who PGRs are, particularly those who study part time – they are working professionals, carers, and complicated individuals with busy lives.
One interesting finding from interviews was the concept of how PGRs are defined. In my own experience, I have felt that being a doctoral researcher is different than being a student, someone teetering somewhere on the edge between student and early career academic.
That said, I assumed postgraduate researchers to have certain benefits, such as access to office space and some level of guaranteed job security (i.e., tutoring opportunities). Based on some interview discussions, it seems I am not alone in my thinking.
Both PGR and staff participants made me aware of new terminology that can be used to frame PGRs in a way that demonstrates their value and career progress. For example, using “researcher” or “doctoral researcher” in place of “student” and “professional development” in place of “training”. Simple changes like these in the vocabulary we use around the PGR experience can be the starting force for changes needed to better support PGRs.
Support and skills development
Related to this were additional findings about how PGRs are supported in reflecting on their skills development needs and how this differs widely across, not only institutions, but schools and colleges within institutions. A doctoral candidate in a structured CDT (which tend to be heavily STEM driven) will likely be expected to follow a more rigorous process for progress monitoring than a PGR like myself, who has, since the first-year review, dictated my own journey.
All Scottish universities are associated with at least one of the pan-Scotland SFC/UKRI national graduate schools. What became clear during my research was the role these play in offering a platform for sharing training opportunities across different institutions.
Scottish Research Pools also make an important contribution towards graduate training and support, and some have their own graduate schools based across multiple Scottish institutions. Despite the impact of these arrangements, I believe there is further potential for a collaborative approach to training within and across institutions.
Before undertaking this internship, I had little awareness of where I fit into the big picture of postgraduate research across Scotland. Now I see how the work I started at SFC is spreading in various forms and places and improving the Scottish PGR experience.
Staff who work with PGRs are pushing to make information more accessible for PGRs and are thinking of ways we can “stop reinventing the wheel”, including through increased collaboration between Scottish institutions. The UKRI New Deal for postgraduates is also working to better PGR research culture, professional development, and career support. There are exciting opportunities that SFC will be exploring as part of a new Advisory Group on Supporting Scotland’s Postgraduate Researchers.
Now I know what is out there, I am eager to see where this work goes and to spread consciousness among my fellow PGR to add their voices in.