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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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.


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Literature reviews and how to do them: an SRHE webinar in the time of Corona

by Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva

For some PhD students attending conferences, research seminars and so on means getting a break from research and it means leaving the library or the lab. During the pandemic everyone has started working remotely and has become only virtually accessible. Cancelling planned face to face events to avoid social contact has made our life extremely quiet and isolated. However, this unusual situation has given me time to reflect on the importance of attending conferences, seminars and other events related to my field. Since the lockdown I have had the chance to attend webinars organized by SRHE. I was lucky to listen to talks on different topics and this  opened new ways of thinking about a topic, giving me access to new ideas that I had previously never thought about. This blog reflects on a webinar I attended recently on ‘Undertaking Literature Reviews’ which took place on 29 April 2020, hosted by SRHE. Even though I had attended a seminar on Literature Reviews (LR) two years earlier, during my first year of study, I still had some remaining questions: What type of review did I carry out in my study? And, Where does my voice come into my review? Hoping to get answers to these questions from the presenter as well as from other researchers I was happy to attend the online webinar without wasting time travelling long distances.

Before the start of the webinar we were provided with slides and articles to discover different approaches to the literature review, which can either shape the chapter for the proposed study or provide a background for an academic article. The material suggested three broad approaches: narrative, systematic and theoretical. The Narrative approach is a review that tries to tell a story, reviewing the extant literature as a way of attempting to summarise what has been written on a particular topic. The systematic approach is a way of reviewing literature by using more objective criteria with a goal of summarising enormous amounts of research, scientifically tracking them for quality control. The theoretical approach is a review that covers the history of different meanings given to key terms in a study that has accumulated evidence in regard to concepts, theories or phenomena. The overall aim of the LR is to persuade other scholars in the field of your command of the relevant literature. My own original LR had been a narrative review in a more traditional way that most doctoral researchers tend to follow, mixing concepts and case studies, organising them under big themes followed by subthemes. I chose this approach to show the research committee what I know about my topic. This type of  narrative LR helped me to understand my topic by focusing precisely on the context of my research and in establishing  the theoretical framework of  the study.  

From the beginning of the seminar I noticed how the presenter warmly welcomed attendees, letting them introduce themselves by asking the reasons for attending this webinar and their expectations. Even though we were all connected online maintaining physical distance, by introducing ourselves and reflecting on the question ‘why we are attending this online seminar’ we softened the boundaries. Participants came from different backgrounds: experienced supervisors; university lecturers; PhD students like me; and people interested in pursuing a PhD in the future. They all had different reasons to join this online event; some of them had professional interests and wanted to get some suggestions for dealing with their own students` questions; some like myself were undertaking doctoral research of their own and were returning to LR in that context. The webinar description on the website was a clear prospectus: by attending this webinar we would be able to answer questions on the objectives of LR, examine epistemological assumptions about LR and engage in discussion by comparing the types of LR.

The facilitator of the webinar, Dr Michael Hammond (Warwick), started his talk by inviting participants to think about the question, ‘Why do we do LR?’ The answer to this question was a major theme that would guide us through the whole seminar. One answer was that it is a way of knowing where you fit in. The LR must not only demonstrate that I understand debates and conversations, but how my research will contribute to the field. In other words I should be able to create an argument as to why my work is relevant to my field by evaluating conversations surrounding my work describing their weaknesses and strengths.

We also discussed finding the gap that our research addresses, and the importance of finding models of methodology to orient oneself – in carrying out a literature review can you find a study that follows a methodology that you want to use? A literature review should be a critical examination of what has come earlier. I was inspired by thinking about the value and status of literature and we all got the chance to ask questions. One participant wanted to understand where the researcher’s voice comes in the review and shared her view that the voice of the researcher comes from what you choose to cite. Another participant raised the question of what to do if the researcher finds that an existing literature review has already covered the things that you want to discuss. The presenter explained you can re-present past reviews in ways that are more relevant for your particular research question but there was always the opportunity to update any review. 

Later we were invited to discuss LR in  groups. It was an enjoyable experience, with Zoom creating space for individuals to share their views and experiences of doing reviews. After a while we returned to our main group space. I felt because of this that online events could follow some of the processes common to face to face working. Thanks to the questions raised during the discussion and by sharing my own experience I gained more understanding of LR and had some answers to the questions that I had in my mind.

In conclusion the presenter showed us ways of organising the literature review by using different tools like Endnote and Mendeley. I noticed how the facilitator of the webinar could present his own thoughts, reflecting back again to the questions posed at the beginning of the seminar. As a doctoral researcher I had found answers to my own questions. This event helped me to reflect on my own literature review, carried out two years ago. When I return to it again I will have in the front of my mind the question of how my work will add to the knowledge in my field. 

When I first started writing my LR I tried to briefly point out debates and conversations in what has been published about my topic. As my research is looking at the use of technologies in language teaching and learning I discussed the use of technologies chronologically, organizing them under themes, basically looking at the key ideas and theoretical approaches. However, after attending this webinar I have understood the importance of organizing the LR from the beginning around the key ideas and concepts or theoretical approaches. As the presenter explained, making an example of his students` work, organizing your LR from the beginning might be very useful in setting up a coding process of your interview analysis at the later stages of your proposed work.


Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva is a third-year PhD student at the University of Warwick, researching language teachers` ICT use through the lens of ecological theory, in higher education in Kazakhstan.