What Makes an Awesome PhD Program? – Part 1

The last few blogs have focused on potential points of failure within a PhD program. The next few will focus on the areas for success.

As noted earlier, most PhD programs are good. But what if you want a great program? Or an awesome one? One that makes students want to write about it in blogs? In that case, there are three elements of a PhD program and all need to be supported:

  1. The Student
  2. The Supervisor
  3. The Research

For the next three blogs I’ll look at each in tern taking examples from the literature and work I have recently undertaken with the CRC Association.

The Student

It might seem self-evident – but good PhD programs need good students. Good students will mean different things to different programs. But mostly students will need to be resilient, self-organised, self-motivated and managed, able to work on their own, and able to work in a team.

Most centres, departments and institutes (and indeed most research leaders) use scholarships and top-up scholarships as a means of attracting good students. In some cases, the top-up is about attracting someone from the workforce to a PhD. I’m not talking directly matching their working income with a PhD scholarship. However, if a standard PhD scholarship is not enough to live on1, it can be hard to convince a potential candidate to give up their job in order to undertake a PhD. There is much to be said for attracting people from the workforce – rather than people straight from their honours or master’s degree courses – as they are likely to have a strong understanding of the problems faced by their industry. Thus, they know what research is needed or more likely to add value to an existing business or sector. Furthermore, it will be easier to assess and/or understand other interpersonal factors of the student.

Top-up scholarships – or “top-ups” as they are called – are also used to attract better students. However, there is limited data on the impact of top-up scholarships on the ability to attract a better PhD candidate.

PhD students require

professional development too

– not just research training

Beyond the money, students also need a degree of autonomy to pick their own project, while having a degree of structure within which their project fits . Students also need to be treated like staff. There are many ways this manifests, but an important one is the professional development of students. For some organisations the easiest approach is to have a dedicated PhD support program. These programs often assume the research training is well taken care of by the supervisor, and that extracurricular activities are needed. The program is somewhat fixed and compulsory (Invasive Animals CRC Balanced Researcher Program2 is a good example, but there are many others). Another common approach is to ask students to create a professional development plan3 – much like staff are asked to do. Then, within that plan students identify the skills, experiences or attributes they need to develop most and how they will do it. In this approach, the PhD program supports students by offering common development opportunities internally and/or providing funds for students to seek these opportunities in a separate setting (e.g. private providers). There is also the need for pastoral care. Some programs chose to support student-led initiatives, others take a more deliberate approach4.

Finally, it is important to understand student motivation for a PhD. For some, it might be vocational training. They are hoping to become a researcher or research academic, and this is seen as a necessary step in that career pathway. For others it is a trial – Do I like research? For others it is the idea of learning about a topic or area very deeply. And for others still, it is just something to do next; avoiding the tough(er) decision and process of getting a job. No reason is better or worse than any other; but, knowing why will give PhD Program Directors an insight into how they might be able to motivate their students and/or which projects, or supervisors might be a better fit.

Happy creating the next generation of researchers and critical thinkers!

If you need help building your PhD program(s) or finding existing programs to make use of, get in touch with the CRC Association and/or Dr Richard Huysmans (Richard.Huysmans@ravencg.com.au, 0412 606 178). We can help you build, implement and operate the best PhD program for your CRC.

Next week – we look at the supervisor you choose.

Dr Richard Huysmans knows the challenges of implementing an awesome PhD program as well as what it takes to complete a PhD. He is passionate about the #pracademic applications of PhD training, not just the academic outcomes. He is driven by the challenge of making a PhD to in-depth knowledge and what an MBA is to Business. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter.

1 Australian Postgraduate Award (APA), is worth $27,082 in 2018, https://www.education.gov.au/research-training-program, accessed 12 July 2018

2 Invasive Animals CRC, Balanced Research Program, http://www.invasiveanimals.com/education/balanced-researcher-program/, accessed 12 July 2018

3 James Cook University, Professional Development Career Statement Examples, https://www.jcu.edu.au/graduate-research-school/formstemplates/professional-development-career-statement-examples, accessed 12 July 2018

4 CRC for Mental Health, Write Smarter: Feel Better, http://www.mentalhealthcrc.com/education/write-smarter-feel-better accessed 12 July 2018