Education

Highest degree needs doctoring

Michael Samuel: COMMENT

Post-doctoral career paths and the social value of PhDs both need better research.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s questions about development, quality and freedom should “help us look critically at our doctoral research studies”. (Supplied)

The nature of doctoral education, the doctoral output of the higher education system and its contribution to both the know­ledge economy and wider society have come under the spotlight in recent times in many contexts.

Governments are increasingly interested in the development of advanced postgraduate degrees that are expected to produce advanced scientific, technical, social, educational, organisational, environmental and health innovations. Graduate PhDs are expected to assist in producing innovation in multidisciplinary teams exercising conjoined thinking across institutional, regional, national and international borders.

But concerns arise about whether the investments in institutions of higher learning are indeed producing these outputs. Some observers have criticised the state's investment of the taxpayers' resources in this exclusive form of higher education, arguing that resources could be more valuably directed towards more tangible outcomes, such as job creation or addressing social and employment needs.

Much of the analysis in South African research is focused on the underproductivity of the system and highlights the status of access to postgraduate education and the readiness of students for (postgraduate) higher education studies, the kinds of educational models that could be used in doctoral education and supervision and the broad brushstrokes outlining the kinds (theoretically, conceptually and methodologically) of postgraduate studies already in the body of master's and doctoral studies.

These focuses might be driven by conceptions of expanding the "productivity" of the system of doctoral education, given the poor international comparative base of the South African education system and its links to apartheid and colonised histories. After all, South Africa produces only 26 PhD graduates per million of the population, compared with Brazil's 52, Korea's 187 or Sweden's 427, for example.

What explains this relative underproductivity of the South African system? Do we understand why we overproduce, or underproduce, certain types of PhDs in particular fields or disciplines?

A reconstructive, transformative goal to redress the imbalances across different institutional contexts and their skewed racial and gendered participation in specific disciplines arguably drives these South African study agendas.

They constitute a necessary baseline status quo of the system of doctoral education in South Africa.

However, they are limited in their methodological orientations and focus because they are drawn largely from the management studies ethic of inputs, processes and outputs. As a result, they do not pay sufficient attention to what happens to our PhD graduates after they complete their degrees. Where have all our PhD graduates gone? What contributions are they making to society? Where are they making their contributions? How do we know they are contributing to the development of our society, economy and epistemological base?

The major deficiencies in South African studies of doctoral careers are the lack of any "empirical validation of the claimed social rates of return to doctoral education, an absence of the empirical reach or scholarly contribution or effect of doctoral education and the inadequacies of the paradigms employed to research doctoral education", Charl Wolhuter of North-West University wrote in a journal article last year.

The literature provides little insight into whether scaling up doctoral education and PhD graduate output would yield the claimed return of investment that policy and decision-makers advocate as part of new discourses in higher education.

What interests me in the study of doctoral education and post-doctoral career trajectories is how the agendas of the studies are being constructed and by whom and for what purposes. What goes under the microscope of the researchers engaging in doctoral education studies? In whose interests are particular kinds of research questions being developed? Who is asking these questions? To whom or what are they responding? What drives the research questions and whose interests are likely to be served through the agendas they choose as the focus for their studies?

Researching the research
Deliberations of a workshop held under the auspices of the European Alliance on Research Career Development of the European Science Foundation, an alliance of national research funding agencies in countries across Europe, drive this paper.

The aim of this year's workshop was to review international studies tracking the research careers of doctoral graduates, feature a mix of theoretical and practical methodological initiatives and the findings of recent studies in career tracking, and provide opportunities for collaboration among research funding agencies, institutions, regions or countries to conceptualise and (re-)design future doctoral career path studies (see researcherscareers.eu).

For the sake of this abbreviated Mail & Guardian version of my original paper, I will present here one of the five key studies the workshop engaged with and suggest how they constitute possibilities for opening up questions about what and how further studies in the South African context, and perhaps more broadly, could pursue. The full paper, with all five case studies, can be found at soe.ukzn.ac.za/inaugural.aspx.

Debunking myths about doctoral career paths
Maresi Nerad of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, presented the findings of three of the centre's studies of doctoral educational outcomes and career paths in the United States.

The surveys and telephonic interview strategies were one-time studies administered to PhD graduates five to 10 years after degree completion over the period 1977 to 2006, each focusing on different clusters of disciplines of varying sample sizes.

Two purposes characterise these studies: to provide institutional comparability of employment trends of PhD graduates and to get students to reflect on the quality of their doctoral education programmes. These studies aim to debunk myths about these issues with the empirical data of the tracer studies of graduates, their experiences of and retrospective reflections on their PhD studies.

A first myth is that all PhD graduates want to enter the academic world after degree completion. Many PhDs do want to enter academia. However, there was not an equivalent interest in pursuing an academic career across all disciplines in the higher education system: only 19% of electrical engineering PhD graduates had academic career ambitions, compared with 32% in biochemistry, 72% in political science and 81% in English studies. Many PhDs prefer a job in academia, but these jobs are increasingly limited.

Second, it is not always the case that PhD graduates enter academic life "smoothly". Most PhDs experience a long-winded journey: some start their academic careers as "postdocs", or on temporary annual appointments and others start as assistant lecturers on a lengthy, arduous path that leads to a secure tenured professorship.

Third, getting a job in academia is not independent of iniquitous patterns of inclusion and exclusion during the hiring of new academics. Many professors see their engagement in supervision of students as a form of succession planning: aiming to replace themselves in academia. Conservative academic institutions seem interested in replicating the current typologies of their present staff, whether in terms of theoretical, epistemological or social interests.

Fourth, finding more permanent employment in academia varies according to the specific biographies of students — their gender, age and nationality. This is evident in how men and women differently are able to exercise their entry into the world of employment opportunities based on family and career responsibilities.

For example, 61% of women with PhDs had partners who were highly educated (a PhD, master's degree or junior degree), compared with 27% of men. Women PhD graduates tended to live with people who were less likely to be able to uproot from their present jobs and find equivalent employment elsewhere.

Men, by contrast, had more flexibility to be career mobile than women. Women were constrained by the partner's inability to shift location to alternative employment opportunities at similar levels elsewhere. This unfairly jeopardises women's ability to pursue doctoral career employment.

PhDs might not be choosing academia or the "knowledge economy" as a career path because, as the studies Nerad discussed revealed, university lecturers do not necessarily enjoy the highest job satisfaction. Compared with their compatriot graduates in business, government or non-governmental organisations, these lecturers were more concerned about the quality of the work environment in the university. Those outside academia were more likely to report more positive job satisfaction, intellectual challenge and professional autonomy. However, salary prospects in academia were more lucrative.

How quickly do PhD graduates in the United States find employment? It differs for different disciplines: science and engineering doctoral graduates obtain almost immediate employment in the formal economy compared with 75% of social sciences PhDs, who were in stable employment only four years after their doctoral degree, a 2007 study that Nerad co-edited found. Tracking studies revealed that social science PhD graduates usually enter a range of jobs beyond the narrow confines of the disciplines of their doctoral study, venturing out to exercise influence in a wide sphere.

On the quality of doctoral education, the studies surprisingly found that graduate students are predominantly satisfied with the supervision they received, especially with regard to the specific topic of their dissertations. However, what graduates most frequently complain about is that supervisors are unable to pay broader attention to enabling students to deal with personal, emotional, social, familial (usually gendered) and economic challenges that arise during a doctoral education.

They would also prefer more direct support with respect to teamwork and collaborative action in research. Assistance in writing grant proposals, managing people, budgets and projects, skills in writing and publishing reports, conference participation and dissemination strategies were expressed needs not often dealt with adequately.

Nerad cautioned that more fine-grained analysis needed to be conducted to generate the range of interventions that are required during doctoral studies, not all of which perhaps education institution can offer alone.

A step aside: exchanging paradigms
The five studies in my full paper reveal the complexity of the agenda influencing the nature of doctoral education and of career path studies. Global, social, economic, cultural and curricular concerns that all compete for attention infuse the terrain as the institutional designers select  their curriculums and programmes.

Often the kinds of doctoral education programmes developed are contextually circumscribed offerings addressing the specifics of the country's or nation's standing with the labour market, the economy and the geopolitical climate. Quality doctoral education is understood in relation to the systems of programmatic and institutional reputation.

Students choose doctoral programmes that respond to their goals for higher education, but these goals are often themselves neither articulated nor understood before the students commence their studies. The aspirations of doctoral graduates shift over time while they study and may even move in new directions after they graduate and enter the world of work. Many PhD graduates become part of the "higher education industry"; others diverge into new careers using their "doctoralness" in not so easy to ascertain one-to-one correspondence with their disciplinary PhD research focuses.

Doctoral candidates, on the whole, are asking for more attention to the broader climate that enables a supportive environment when they undertake their PhDs. This is not always directed towards more "disciplinary" or "academic content" input. Instead, doctoral candidates are asking to be recognised as fuller human beings, with multiple responsibilities as members of particular communities, nations, cultures and genders. Their identities matter in influencing the nature of their success as doctoral candidates. More requests for supportive funding and workplace linkages are being requested.

These studies should be applauded for raising the list of questions about what gets studied when one engages with a doctoral career path study; who is studied and how this influences their participation or success; when to conduct such doctoral career path studies; what is the focus of the study; how will you assess the quality of the effect of a doctoral qualification?

All these issues and questions are relevant to doctoral education and national and institutional planning. Doctoral career path studies can simultaneously be about many issues: looking backwards into the institutional higher education landscape and curriculum interventions and forwards to the wider society.

However, what these studies do not focus adequately  on is the underlying power dynamics that characterise the programmatic, institutional and national offerings of doctoral education in the global context. The studies do not pay sufficient attention to the dynamics of hegemony that position unquestioningly the developed world institutions and their agendas as the hallmarks of quality for doctoral education towards which all higher education institutions should aspire.

Some of these studies do not adequately challenge the agendas that, perhaps unconsciously, drive their interest in doctoral tracer studies. The unexpressed intention is that expansion of the models of the "developed" world into the "less developed" is a form of altruistic benevolence. A harsh critique would suggest that just as conceptions of religion were exported in the old colonial project, so too now is the knowledge economy being exported in a new colonialism.

However both forms of colonial imperialisation could arguably be regarded as a search for new markets; for finding means of keeping the colonised natives dependent on the empire's guiding sources. To ignore the invasive influence of hegemony is to remain as collaborators in injustice and inequity despite the expressed noble intentions of "expanding the influence of quality".

Force fields of  'doctoralness'
Are our dominant discourses perhaps too tightly circumscribing our understandings of doctoral studies as a form of "productivity" rather than more broadly as part of a learning process which include matters of social justice and transformation, freedoms and significances?

An individual becoming a doctoral researcher and developing a career after completion of a doctorate is caught at the intersections among  several forces, like an electron in a force field. These pushes and pulls can be grouped as: biographical, institutional and programmatic forces.

• Biographical forces: To what extent does the biography, country of origin, nationality, race, sexual orientation and gender of the researcher and supervisor influence the nature of what comes to be studied in the doctoral education process? Who defines the research question? When? What biographical force drives (pushes or pulls) these considerations? For example, does it matter that one is a Chinese student studying in English in a German university?

• Institutional forces: How does the reputation of the institution influence how doctoral candidates position themselves as researchers in doctoral education? How does the institution market their paradigmatic, theoretical and practical agendas and what choices are available to doctoral candidates in relation to these agendas? How does the institutional force constrain or enable the pursuit of independent thinking and knowledge production; and

• Programmatic forces: These forces are those that emanate from the explicit or official doctoral programme of a particular institution or department within the institution. We may regard these designed doctoral programmes as having a distinct curriculum.

The different traditions within particular disciplines also influence these programmatic forces. Major differences constitute the models of curricular design of doctoral studies in the humanities compared with the (natural) sciences, for example. In addition, the distinctions among what is taught, what is learned and what remains from what is passed on from professor to doctoral candidate is relevant. How different is the declared, espoused, enacted and experienced curriculum of doctoral candidates as they pursue their doctoral studies? What hidden learnings do particular candidates in particular programmes experience as a consequence of their doctoral curriculum of teaching and learning (formal and informal)? Many of these nuances of curriculum analysis escaped many of the studies in this workshop.

Understanding power
Doctoral research into career development includes the interaction among the personal (individual), the institutional (programmatic) and the societal (social). I choose to emphasise the need to understand doctoral studies and career development within the historical, political and (inter)national context.

The need to focus on geopolitical forces is especially great in contexts such as developing world countries,  where the promotion of doctoral education is implicated in the exclusion of novice and young researchers from exercising influence over the tradition of subservience and successor regime mentality especially within academia.

The power that novice researchers, who have usually studied abroad, can exercise within the social system often threatens the scarce resources of the senior professor.

The newly graduated doctoral candidate is often interpreted as a threat rather than as resource.

The macro forces of a social system as it tries to reconstruct identities in an increasingly globalised society are also relevant. How does doctoral education contribute to the changing patterns of privilege between the wealthier and less wealthy nations? How and why do doctoral candidates choose to return from or remain within their international host countries during their doctoral studies?

Development as freedom
India's Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, cautions that we should not narrowly understand development as the pursuit of individual material wealth alone, nor the growth of the gross national product, nor the rise of industrialisation, nor technological advancement, nor social modernisation in isolation of each other.

He suggests that when we think of our development we need to think of the quality of expanding freedoms that it has engendered. What

quality of society has our development yielded? Our freedom is, however, not singular, but a plural concept. We need to look critically at how our doctoral research studies, our doctoral education and our doctoral career-making processes are implicated in introducing the quality of freedoms in our society.

Are our doctoral education candidates embracing the responsibilities for the local and global force field of ideas towards realising greater freedoms? How do we develop significance in doctoral research?

In large measure, our dominant discourse of the "worthwhileness" of doctoral education is couched in econometric terms (return on investment discourses), which either individuals, institutions or nation states promote. So the challenge remains: How do we, as funders of doctoral education, enable our doctoral graduates, their course designers and their funders to exercise their freedoms to execute significant research in all its multiplicity?

This is an edited version of Professor Michael Samuel's inaugural professorial address at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's school of education on October 9. His critical reflections on the European science foundation workshop, which form the platform for this paper, are available at researcherscareers.eu. The full copy of his address is available on request: email [email protected]

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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