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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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How poster competitions can support postgraduates

by Ben Archer and Jill Dickinson

The challenges presented by the higher education environment, including students’ mental wellbeing and doctoral completion rates (Cage et al, 2021; Rooij et al, 2019), have been compounded by Covid-19. Pre-existing concerns around the potential isolation of the doctoral journey have become more prevalent since the pandemic (Börgeson et al, 2021; Pollak, 2017). Within such an environment, opportunities for building postgraduate students’ communities of practice, networks, and self-efficacy have become even more important (Lamothe et al, 2018; Lui et al, 2020; Wazni et al, 2021). In this blog, we examine one such opportunity, a Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. After outlining the event, we identify some of the challenges around managing the event, explore the benefits of the event for key stakeholders, and consider the potential for further developing the event both in-house and in collaboration with other institutions.

Presenting research via a poster at the Society for Research into Higher Education Conference inspired Jill Dickinson to apply for funding to devise a new Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. The aim was to provide an accessible space for students at all stages of their postgraduate studies to share their research, discuss their ideas, prepare for assessments, develop their employability skills (Disney et al, 2015), and build networks. Jill secured internal funding through both the Graduate School and through her role as a Fellow of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies, and worked with a colleague from the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics (PSP) to launch the event. Recognising the importance of creating opportunities for postgraduate researchers to develop their research profiles, Jill also secured external funding from key organisations, including Oxford University Press, Palgrave, and Blackwells.

Following the trend towards interdisciplinary collaborations (Bridle et al, 2013), students from the Departments of Law and Criminology, Natural and Built Environment, and PSP, and the Centre for Regional, Social and Economic Research were invited to participate. To reflect the conference process, students were asked to submit abstracts for review. Fourteen students presented their work to an audience that included external organisations, doctoral research supervisors, and fellow students. The posters were judged by a panel who awarded prizes for both academic significance and potential impact. One of the winners noted ‘unlike formal conferences, the SIPS PhD Student Poster Event gave presenters the opportunity to engage with attendees on a relaxed one-to-one level. I received plenty of invaluable advice and suggestions which have shaped my PhD going forward.’ After 93% of delegates rated the event as either good or excellent, the initiative became established as an annual event in the Graduate School’s programme.

Since its launch, the event has been developed:

  • with additional funding provided by other organisations, including Emerald and Policy Press;
  • to provide opportunities for all postgraduate researchers from all disciplines across the University;
  • to include a programme of workshops to provide support for students in developing their posters;
  • to encourage the audience to vote on their favourite poster for a Delegates’ Choice Award; and
  • to become a self-perpetuating initiative that is led by, and for, postgraduate researchers.

Over the past five years, the event has provided notable benefits for those involved, including the development of skills, knowledge and experience around: consolidating and presenting ideas in a creative way (Etter and Guardi, 2015; Rowe and Ilac, 2009); explaining research findings in an accessible format for a lay audience; and strengthening confidence in public speaking, which can be particularly helpful for supporting newer student researchers with their teaching responsibilities. Furthermore, postgraduate students have described the event as a key milestone for developing their self-efficacy, particularly around helping them to prepare for their confirmation and viva stages. More broadly, the event recognises the longevity and challenges of postgraduate studies and provides an opportunity for the wider research community to celebrate research success through encouraging positive reflections on what student researchers have done, not what obstacles remain (Batty et al, 2019; Pyhältö , 2012; Sverdlik et al, 2018).

In line with the Students as Partners model (Healey, Flint and Carrington, 2014), Jill invited postgraduate students who have participated in the event to join the organisational team. For example, Ben Archer, co-author of this blog post and winner of the 2019 Delegates’ Choice Award, co-organised the event in 2020. Ben has since led on the arrangements for the 2021 event, inviting other postgraduate student researchers to join him, and the team are already planning next year’s event.

Navigating the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has, however, proven tricky. The April 2020 showcase had been thoroughly planned, with poster submissions received, rooms booked and display boards pre-ordered, but the organisation team worked quickly to identify and realise an opportunity to incorporate the event within the University-wide Creating Knowledge online conference programme. Following the success of this format, and given the continuing uncertainties presented by the pandemic environment, the organisational committee decided to retain, and further develop, the event within this virtual format. For example, the team extended the time for this year’s event from one hour to three hours to encourage more discussions between the presenters and all members of the audience. In addition, the posters were made available on the SIPS website for two weeks prior to the event to maximise opportunities for receiving feedback and development of profiles. Against a backdrop of reduced networking opportunities necessitated by the pandemic, the continuation of this event facilitated peer-interaction and community-building which can be particularly important given the potential issues identified earlier around postgraduate students’ feelings of  isolation, lack of confidence, and mental health (Hazell et al, 2020).

Building on the event’s sustained success, and despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the organisational team are exploring opportunities for its further development. One idea is to host a blended event that combines an on-campus poster display with online, follow-up presentations. The aim would be to maximise accessibility and engagement with an increased audience that could further build postgraduate researchers’ confidence, employability skills, networking opportunities, and profiles. Additionally, the organisational team are looking to collaborate with other institutions to host a larger scale event that further recognises the breadth and value of social policy research within higher education.

If you are interested in finding out more about the event and ways within which you could get involved, we would really like to hear from you!

Benjamin Archer is a Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies and Doctoral Training Alliance joint-funded PhD student, examining the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders. Ben’s research interests include anti-social behaviour and the management of greenspaces and high streets. Twitter @benjaminarcher_

Dr Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University, who is currently on secondment with the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research Team. As a Senior Fellow of the HEA, Jill’s research interests include professional development and employability, and she sits on the England Committee for the International Professional Development Association. Twitter @jill_dickinson1