6 tips to build a PhD program

Cooperative Research Centres, Centres of Excellence, Centres of Research Excellence, Institutes, etc. are all large programs, usually have high (monetary) value and are complex to deliver. These factors are present from the design and application processes, all the way through to implementation, operation and wind-up.

Although the complexity cannot be removed, planning can certainly reduce the complexity, as well as smooth out or prevent bumps in the road.

One such area often neglected, is the training of research students. In particular, how PhD students are supported within these large research programs to complete their thesis and join the workforce. Hopefully as graduates who can straddle the research-industry nexus. Workers who are equally able to pursue a research career in academia or industry; not to mention non-research careers across the various relevant sectors.

Therefore, how do these entities (in operation or application) build and implement a program that creates (or supports the creation of) a highly employable graduate?

The first step is to focus on the research part. That is do good quality research. Make sure the research training delivered, supported, and guided by the university members is high quality. The best way to do this is to have a well thought through and described research (as well as development and onto translation) portfolio. This means the program is endorsed by researchers as well as industry. Innately, research programs will take into account the needs of academics. However, what is often missing is the endorsement of industry partners. That industry partners have indicated their requirements/required outcomes; and that university partners have had subsequent input to the design of appropriate research methodologies to achieve those outcomes. That university partners understand the industry goals (and associated challenges) and that industry partners understand the impact of pursuing different methodologies on project outcomes.

The next component is to have good supervisors. In the first instance, it is important to know what good supervision means to you. Do they have a good publication record? What about grants? What about industry track record? Do they do undergraduate teaching? Will they retire soon? Secondly, build their skills. At the very least, you might require all supervisors to have some kind of supervision training. It is also worth considering implementing supervisor support programs. They could be other training packages, peer mentoring, or information sharing. Whatever it is, support for PhD supervisors is as important as supporting the student themselves. Simply because there is no other measure that correlates more closely to student happiness and completion than satisfaction with their supervisor. And, intuitively and experientially, we all know our teachers have the greatest impact on our learning.

Of course, there is a need to have good students. Again, understanding what it means to be a good student is the first step. The second is letting students know what being a good student looks like to you.

Many programs decide to top-up scholarships ($5,000 — $7,000 per annum for 3–4 years is common). That, to me, is more about student selection than it is about making a good student great. Similarly, deciding to build on the Australian Post Graduate Award (APA) or other scholarship program is about making selection easier, than it is about making a good student great.

Certainly, if funds and time are low (when are they not low?) making use of existing processes for student selection is appropriate. But just as important, is understanding student motivation. Why are they interested in a PhD? Why with your group/program or centre? The answers to these questions need not be a reason for selection or rejection, but they should guide how students are supported throughout their PhD and once they submit their thesis.

Just like supervisors, building the skills of students is important. This can come in the form of peer support as well as specific training packages (in research techniques, or peripheral skills such as project or financial management). It could also be through facilitating industry placements in direct (e.g. pharmaceutical laboratory for pharmacy student) or indirect (e.g. aged care for someone working on the metabolic pathways involved in Alzheimer’s Disease).

Finally, track it! Personal development plans for students and supervisors provide an important baseline/starting point, helping the student, the supervisor, and the PhD Program coordinators track progress and impact. In many cases, these plans are completed at the start of a PhD, then reviewed annually by the student and the supervisor.

In addition, PhD Program coordinators should implement an annual review to ensure their program is achieving what it set out to do.

What do you think needs to be put in place for an effective PhD program?

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“This program is great value. The course content is excellent, the opportunity to work with other early career researchers is enriching, and Richard’s input is super-helpful. The weekly meetings keep you accountable and productive, and it’s affordable. I’ll be signing up again!”
Victoria, PhD Candidate

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping PhD students and academics make the most of their training and experience. Richard’s strategic approach to careers has been making the impossible possible for more than a decade. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, visit his shop, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. You can find him on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, ResearchGate, Google Scholar, Spotify, YouTube, and Medium.

Originally published at https://blog.drrichardhuysmans.com.

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I’m a careers coach. I help people with PhDs or getting their PhDs answer the question — What next? This is a research strategy question as much as a jobs one.

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Dr. Richard Huysmans

Dr. Richard Huysmans

I’m a careers coach. I help people with PhDs or getting their PhDs answer the question — What next? This is a research strategy question as much as a jobs one.

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