Postgraduate studies are undertaken for a variety of reasons. Some students may wish to embark on a career in academic research. Others may want to enhance their skills, change their career focus or undertake a programme not available at undergraduate level.
The majority of students pursuing postgraduate degrees do not envisage an academic research career, but expect to be equipped for employment outside universities and research institutes. Prospective postgraduate students in this category should investigate whether the programmes they plan to enter will indeed deliver on their expectations.
The workplaces that these students enter on graduation form part of the so-called knowledge economy, a world in which knowledge is considered crucial to the growth and prosperity of societies. Its participants are expected to convert data into knowledge that must be managed and applied for economic (and social) benefit. Understanding the needs of the knowledge economy more practically provides graduates with a distinct advantage.
In 2010 the Academy of Science of South Africa published a study of PhDs that examined the status of doctoral education in South Africa and suggested ways of improving the quality of doctoral graduates. PhDs are considered an important indicator and determinant of a country’s capacity for socioeconomic development. The same can be said for the master’s degree and other postgraduate qualifications.
The academy’s PhD study suggested that doctoral training be expanded to provide graduates with an awareness of the social and business environment, while providing employers with access to the latest research and also with appropriately skilled employees. Suggested training outcomes include: preparation of students for a variety of work contexts; the development of skills in problem solving, planning, project management, communication and leadership; engagement in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and collaborative projects; and opportunities for study in teams and with a cohort of peers.
How could such skills be developed in postgraduate programmes? Although they could be addressed separately, an integrated approach with direct exposure to potential employers active in the knowledge economy is likely to be more successful. The interaction between universities and industry has been increasing in recent years, and especially for studies related to business, engineering and technology, and health sciences.
Enabling this interaction in science and technology degree programmes is the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme, managed by the National Research Foundation on behalf of the department of trade and industry.
The programme funds partnerships between universities and industry. It requires that postgraduate students be exposed to industry and gives companies access to academic research. It aims to address the shortage of technical skills in this country and to promote the development of advanced technologies.
Links with NGOs and similar organisations would benefit students in a range of other academic disciplines. Academic engagement with external organisations spans various forms of research collaboration, consulting projects and internships for students. Prospective students intent on enhancing their employment prospects should look for such signs of engagement in universities’ postgraduate programmes. Once registered, they should actively seek out these engagement opportunities.
But it is also incumbent on universities to proactively establish such partnership opportunities for their students. As has often been stated, South Africa’s inclusive development will only materialise if we transcend institutional boundaries, build extra-institutional engagements and create new productive environments for the generation and transfer of knowledge for the benefit of all.
Tania Douglas is deputy dean for research and a professor of biomedical engineering in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town. She is an associate of UCT’s Programme for the Enhancement of Research Capacity for 2013-2014