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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Doctoral Borderlands: an exploration of doctoral education and its possible futures

by Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein, Rille Raaper, Harry Rolf, Karen Gravett, Karen Smith, Neil Harrison and Susan Carter

At the SRHE conference 2021, we (Karen S, Neil and Susan) facilitated a symposium in two parts on Doctoral Borderlands. Together, the parts gave a guided tour through doctoral borderlands, the metaphor underpinning the Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue: ‘Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral education’ (Carter, Smith & Harrison, 2021). The reference to borderlands, drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) work, emphasised the transitionary and liminal nature of doctoral education, the crossings into the unknown, and the emergence or surfacing of (multiple) identities. In the symposium, ten authors shared overviews of seven of the Special Issue articles as starting points for open discussion around doctoral education and its future possibilities.

This blog post picks up three doctoral borderland trajectories taken by some of the SRHE symposium presenters. First, Karen Gravett starts by looking at how the form of the doctorate is changing and its impact on perceptions of the doctoral journey. Then Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper discuss being, becoming and belonging, particularly in the context of precarity. After this, Harry Rolf considers power in doctoral education, from the starting point of doctoral publishing.

Karen Gravett

Critical perspectives on doctoral education are needed now more than ever. It is increasingly apparent that the prevalence of new routes and possibilities for study, including professional and publication-led doctorates, combined with a competitive academic landscape, have reshaped the doctoral experience in new ways (Gravett, 2021). What it is to be a doctoral student and what it means to do a doctorate is evolving, and traditional stereotypes, of young, full-time, funded students are no longer fit for purpose.

And yet, the literature on doctoral education is rich with metaphors that describe doctoral study as a pathway or trajectory, while institutional rhetoric often evokes ideas of linearity and regularity. In my recent work (Gravett, 2021), I explore the power of these tropes and depictions, in order to ask: what do spatial narratives do? Are conceptions of linear journeys, or pathways from student to academic, from novice to expert, still fit for purpose? I invite readers to think with two of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theoretical concepts, rhizome and becoming, to foreground the multiple and messy becomings that researchers experience, as they evolve throughout a doctorate and beyond.

In reconsidering narratives of the doctoral journey, I offer an irruption to widely accepted notions of learning as a linear pathway with a fixed end-point, and reflect on how new and traditional forms of doctoral study might be understood differently. Thinking differently about doctoral study offers new opportunities for writing: offering spaces to disrupt the traditional monograph that has dominated the doctorate to date, and openings for intertextuality and connection.

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Just as the form of the doctorate and the pathway through it are changing, the context in which doctorates are done and the impact on doctoral students’ identities are also changing, picked up by Namrata, Anesa and Rille.

Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper

The marketisation of higher education (HE) has seen a growing number of HE staff being employed on short term hourly paid contracts, which has also triggered much of the recent University and College Union (UCU) Four Fights Campaign in the UK. Our paper (Rao, Hosein & Raaper, 2021) explored doctoral students engaged in HE teaching in an era of precarity; within this context of increasing casualisation, the doctoral students, ‘the budding academics’, are seeking ways of getting their foot in the door and ‘becoming’ an academic. This desire for ‘belonging’ in the academy has seen them take up casualised contracts with the hope that they would one day land up a permanent contract.

Aside from the damage often caused by such casualised contracts to their developing professional identity, there is a growing concern that the precarious employment circumstances lead to them developing a fractured ‘cleft’ teacher identity, where they are continuously straddling the demands of being a researcher (as a doctoral student) and being a teacher negotiating the uncertainties created by such working conditions. Doctoral students’ understandings of university teaching are often framed by their own experiences of being a university student. We suggest their teaching should be shaped by a professional development programme. Access to such programmes is limited due to the nature of their casualised contracts and often very disparate depending on the institutional context.

These structural inequalities and precarious support practices compromise candidates’ holistic development as researchers and teachers. It’s more difficult for them to be fully productive university teachers, which in turn has a knock-on impact on the quality of university teaching and their experience as doctoral students. Therefore, there is a pressing need for universities to consider ways in which doctoral students can belong to and become and be (remain) active citizens who are aware of their responsibilities, but whose rights are addressed both as students and aspiring academics.

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Doctoral student engagement with and in the academy is underpinned by power, a theme continued by Harry.

Harry Rolf

The landscape of doctoral education is contradictory and conflicting, shaped by invisible power structures and taken-for-granted practices arising from research performance and productivity measures. An emphasis on publishing in doctoral pedagogy means that this is increasingly a landscape that doctoral students must cross to achieve academic and future career success.

My analysis (Rolf 2021), applying a lens of data feminism to publications by doctoral students at an Australian university, shows a borderland where crossings by students and supervisors were frequent but where few stayed for long. Travellers crossed in teams which over time exhibited different approaches to the practice of publication, from teams led by a strong ego-centric researcher to teams where publication was a collaborative effort, but where power was not evenly distributed. Travelling with an experienced guide provided doctoral students with greater access to networks, and if they travelled frequently, more opportunities to publish along the way.

The analysis raises important questions about power and experience in doctoral supervisory and publishing teams, including questions that go beyond the scope of publication data; for example, what does good collaboration look like in doctoral supervisory teams, how are those doctoral supervisory teams formed, what practices do those supervisors bring, and are more diverse expertise or experience brought to supervisory teams and properly recognised? And looking beyond the immediate supervisory team, how can doctoral students find other networks and teams with the knowledge and tools to help them find safe passage, and success, on their borderland crossing?

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Our 2021 SRHE conference symposium managed to cover many of the uncertainties, transitions, dangers and hopes of doctoral borderlands, doing pretty well at representing the Special Issue, which houses thirteen full articles and two Points of Departure (think-piece provocations) covering a range of topics relating to doctoral education. The Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue, the stimulus papers and the discussion in the SRHE symposium that followed demonstrated the changing landscape of doctoral education in terms of the different forms and format of the doctorate, the context of doctoral study, the nature of doctoral research with research that crosses disciplines and professions, the roles and responsibilities that doctoral students have and the expectations that are placed upon them, and the different backgrounds and multiple identities that doctoral researchers bring to their studies. This changing landscape means that doctoral students have different challenges to negotiate, and that the guides through the landscape, and the guidance and support for doctoral students needs also to change. Such changes can open up new possibilities for future doctoral education, which, as the SRHE symposium showed, will benefit from productive professional conversations about doctoral pedagogy and its development.     

For more information, please contact Dr Karen Smith, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, email: k.smith27@herts.ac.uk

References

Anzaldúa, G (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute

Carter, S, Smith, K, & Harrison, N (2021) Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral educationTeaching in Higher Education, 26 (3): 283-292 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1911098

Deleuze, G, and Guattari, F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia London: Continuum

Gravett, K (2021) ‘Disrupting the Doctoral Journey: Re-imagining Doctoral Pedagogies and Temporal Practices in Higher Education’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 293–305 doi:10.1080/13562517.2020.1853694

Rao, N, Hosein, A & Raaper, R (2021) ‘Doctoral Students Navigating the Borderlands of Academic Teaching in an era of Precarity’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 454–470 doi:10.1080/13562517.2021.1892058 

Rolf, HG (2021) ‘Navigating Power in Doctoral Publishing: A Data Feminist Approach’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 488–507 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1892059


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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.


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What comes next after Covid 19 in re-setting doctoral education?

by Rosemary Deem

Like many other aspects of higher education teaching, supervising and research worldwide, doctoral education in higher education institutions (HEIs) has been massively affected by the pandemic. The effects include campus closures and lost experimental and fieldwork data, rapid transition to online supervision and viva defences, cancelled or online conferences hampering networking, lack of wellbeing, study progress being hampered by lack of suitable non-campus work spaces, home schooling children and poor or no internet connectivity (Else, 2021 ; European University Association Council for Doctoral Education, 2020 ; Jackman et al, 2021; Levine et al, 2021). As we are still in the throes of the pandemic at the time of writing, it is difficult to know whether some of the changes made in haste to doctoral education, such as remote supervision and examinations, will be permanent or not. Some adaptations, such as online seminars and conferences and a move away from physical international mobility to blended or virtual mobility, will probably continue, as they permit international participation without high costs or environmental damage. The legacy for doctoral researchers caught up in the Coronavirus chaos will certainly live on for quite a while, although hopefully over time the shock of the impact of lockdowns, working from home and universities being very selective over who gets an extension or extra funding may gradually fade.  However, for those with their eye on future academic jobs, the precarity regime of HE posts remains sadly intact in many HE systems (Deem, 2021b). The availability of jobs outside academe has also been affected by the pandemic, as countries struggle to manage politics, promote public health and provide support for the business, public and third sectors.

The experience of doing a doctorate in times of Covid-19 has brought both good and less good elements, from acquiring more resilience and online learning skills to experiencing poverty, poor mental health and having a lack of motivation to finish writing a thesis.  Some supervisors have also struggled to support their doctoral researchers alongside other students and their own research, particularly where HEIs have indicated that doctoral education is not a pandemic priority, a short sighted view sometimes brought about by difficult HEI financial situations and recruitment uncertainty. Despite the avalanche of articles about the Covid-related impact on doctoral education and doctoral researchers submitted to journals during 2020 and 2021, there are still many things we  know less about, such as: how part-time doctoral researchers have fared compared with full-time candidates; how STEM and Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences candidates compare in the obstacles they face; or how the doctoral research experiences of women and people of colour differ from those of men or white doctoral candidates. There has been relatively little investigation about how supervisors have been affected by remote supervision and the pandemic (UK Council for Graduate Education, 2021) compared with the literature on the effects on students. It is also hard to tell at this point whether the percentage of doctoral theses referred for further work, or even failed, has changed, as many of those due to submit in 2020-21 have deferred or interrupted their studies and have not yet been examined. There has been some advice offered to institutions on this (Houston & Halliday, 2021 ) but in quite a few countries, national regulations on doctoral study don’t make flexibility in doctoral submission and examination very easy.

We are also beginning to see some big differences in the coping strategies of HEIs. It appears that countries with high degrees of marketisation in their HE systems, and with a significant dependence on international students for income, have not fared particularly well under Covid (Drayton and Waltmann, 2020b ; Le, 2021; Marinoni, Hillijge, and Jensen, 2020 ; Startz, 2020 ), whereas countries with low degrees of marketisation or with previous experience of campus lockdowns, such as in the SARS epidemic, did better (Jung, Horta, & Postiglione, 2020). Furthermore, doctoral education was already in something of a crisis before Covid, with a long running critique of its failings, ranging across: so-called ‘overproduction’ of doctoral graduates relative to academic jobs (Nerad, 2020); completion and dropout rates; access to doctoral programmes for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds; and quality of doctorates and future employment prospects. The state of mental health amongst doctoral researchers is also now a common concern in many contexts (Deem, 2020a; Hazell et al, 2020; Levecque et al, 2017).  However, tackling all these challenges is not straightforward and there is a tendency to tackle each problem on its own in a single HE system or HEI, without thinking how each different challenge relates to all the others.  

What is needed post-pandemic (assuming the world gets there) is a concerted attempt to undertake, certainly at the institutional level, a more holistic approach, but also an approach which relates to the grassroots as well as institutional hierarchies. Such an approach has already been found to be effective in relation to schemes for increasing the numbers of women who get promoted to full professor (Morley, 2013). This initiative focuses first on looking at and fully supporting the people involved (doctoral researchers and supervisors) whilst ensuring their diversity and wide access to doctoral education for those who could benefit from it. Organisational factors are also important, such as valuing doctoral candidates’ academic and social contribution for its own sake, not as a source of cheap research and teaching labour, making doctoral researchers more visible and more important in their institutions, and ensuring organisational processes and procedures reflect this,. Joined-up change also means taking on board issues related to the kinds of knowledge that are valued in doctoral theses: whether that knowledge is from the global north or south; whether it is interdisciplinary or framed in a single discipline; which language or culture it relates to; and encouraging knowledge which values methodological or empirical foci as much as theoretical knowledge, irrespective of whether or not knowledge has immediate economic or social impact. Such an approach, aligned to a clear strategy and implementation process, could in time transform how doctoral education operates, to everyone’s benefit. This is not a change programme for the faint-hearted but unless something like this is adopted, long after the pandemic is over we will still be talking about doctoral crises and the challenges to be addressed, whilst failing to take a more holistic lens to transforming doctoral education than has so far been the norm in many HE systems and HEIs.  We owe it to our current and future doctoral researchers to attempt to develop a more humanistic and more equality-based approach to doctoral study after the rigours of the Corona virus outbreak.    

SRHE Fellow Rosemary Deem OBE is Emerita Professor of Higher Education Management and Doctoral School Senior Research Fellow, Royal Holloway (University of London), UK. She was the first woman to chair the UK Council for Graduate Education and was a member of three UK Research Assessment Exercise Sub-Panels on Education (1996, 2001, 2008).  An Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2006, she is a co-editor of Higher Education (Springer) since 2013, a member of the Peer Review College of the European Science Foundation and a co-convenor of the Higher Education Network in the European Educational Research Association

References (not embedded via URLs)

Deem, R (2020a) ‘Rethinking doctoral education: university purposes, academic cultures, mental health and the public good’ in Cardoso, S, Tavares, O, Sin, C and Carvalho, T (eds), Structural and Institutional Transformations in doctoral education: social, political and student expectations (pp. 13-42). Cham, Switzerland Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature

Deem, R (2021b) ‘The early stage academic and the contemporary university: communities of practice meet managerialism?’ in Sarrico, C, Rosa de Pires, MJ and Carvalho, T (eds), Handbook on Managing Academics Cheltenham Edward Elgar

Marinoni, G., Hillijge, V. t. L., & Jensen, T. (2020 ). The Impact of Covid on higher education around the world:  IAU Global Survey Paris International Association of Universities

Morley, L. (2013). Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations.

Nerad, M. (2020). Doctoral Education Worldwide:  Three decades of change In M. M. Yudkevich, P. G. Altbach, & H. de Wit (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Doctoral Education Worldwide: A Global Perspective (pp. 33-52). London and Thousand Oaks, California Sage.