Skills and PhD training

1 minute read

A colleague directed my attention to the text of a recent lecture by Wendy Larner, the outgoing president of the Royal Society Te Apārangi of New Zealand: Professor Wendy Larner’s final presidential address.

The lecture focused upon the place of doctoral training in New Zealand and the need to increase the value of this kind of education for students and the society more broadly.

There is much in the lecture that I agree with. I found it fascinating to look at the transition in the last 18 years since New Zealand began to incentivize international students—now there are more international PhD completions in New Zealand than there are domestic (New Zealand national) PhD completions. The country has seen the same trends in the academic job market as other countries. That means many more PhD graduates than jobs. What Larner emphasizes effectively is that higher education has tremendous value, but educators and institutions need to adapt their training methods so that students will be well prepared for jobs with commercial, industry, and practical applications.

Second, we need to help our doctoral students understand the skills they are learning beyond their subject or discipline knowledge. The emphasis in doctoral training needs to shift from a singular focus on a ‘master-discipline’ or ‘apprenticeship’ model of the PhD to one that places much more emphasis on generic skills training such as teamwork, knowledge exchange and research dissemination. This explicit emphasis on generic skills would better equip doctoral graduates for future employment in industry, government and civil society organisations, rather than assuming they will all find jobs in universities and/or other research organisations. It will also address some of the challenges with an overly individualised model of doctoral research that too often plays on wider personal insecurities, and does not produce the collaborative, collegial graduates we need.

I would add that these skills are also increasingly valued and relevant in academic careers, particularly in social and natural sciences. People who excel in their careers are those who have collaboration and management skills, and who can apply their technical abilities outside of the narrow domain where they may have learned them.