Impact Blog

Doctoral Research Impact Canvas: Enhancing doctoral candidates’ research impact capabilities.

March 2021
Dr Huong Nguyen
Policy Analyst, UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean


After the publication of the ACOLA review of Australia’s Research Training System in 2016, most Australian universities have reformed their PhD training in some ways. One popular approach is to provide compulsory coursework embedded within and alongside the traditional PhD thesis. As an academic manager who created the coursework for a PhD program, I developed the ‘Innovation and Impact in Research’ unit. The unit aimed to develop PhD candidates’ key capabilities to become an impactful researcher, presented in the format of a Doctoral Research Impact Canvas. The main components of this canvas included: personal motivation; research context; the project design; potential research contribution and impact; and engagement and communication strategies. This Canvas serves several purposes: (1) it helps PhD candidates to reflect on their personal motivation in pursuing their research topic; (2) it prompts them to verify their research originality; (3) it assists them to argue for an innovative approach and the quality of their project; (4) it guides them to state convincingly their intended academic and non-academic impact; and (5) it helps them to develop a comprehensive strategy for engaging with and communicate research to key research end-users.

Why develop HDR students’ research engagement and impact capabilities?

This unit was developed against the context of the systemic problems of research-innovation translation in Australia. Australia has performed exceptionally well in research excellence but rather poorly in translating its research excellence into practical outcomes beyond academia. On the other hand, many HDR students, particularly international and mature age students, still struggle to understand the fundamental nature of doing a PhD, i.e., the creation of SOCK (Significant Original Contribution to Knowledge). Just like training for research impact, universities often do not provide formal training to guide HDR students in the process of creating SOCK.

What were the intended learning outcomes?

The Innovation and Impact in Research unit in the PhD program was designed with an expectation that by successfully completing this unit, students would be able to:

  • THEORY: Differentiate a range of generic strategies/processes/tools that supervisors and PhD candidates across different disciplines often use to develop PhD topics, engage with significance and originality, and argue for project quality and impact.
  • APPLICATION: Evaluate, adopt, and adapt these generic strategies/processes/tools in their own research context to generate contents that can help them to propose a doctoral research project that makes a significant and original contribution to knowledge/practice.
  • PRACTICE: Present their doctoral research project’s potential theoretical/practical contributions to smart non-specialist audiences via oral and written communication channels.

How was this unit built?

  • Overall framework: This unit employed the business model canvas as its theoretical framework. A PhD student commencing their doctoral project was considered as an entrepreneur starting up their business. To create contents relevant to the context of doctoral research, I applied the most cutting-edge knowledge in the doctoral education and the academic careers literature. The unit contents were also verified by engaging with a wide range of senior academics and industry partners, as well as students themselves.
  • Inter-disciplinary: This unit was interdisciplinary. Contents were drawn from various disciplines such as psychology, entrepreneurship, management, communication, and education.

Pedagogical approach

  • Flipped classroom: The unit utilised a flipped classroom model by combining pre-recorded Lectures with synchronous webinars in an inter-disciplinary learning environment. The unit specifically developed both academic contents and transferable skills.
  • Scaffolding: The unit it was designed to provide students with the ‘big picture’ of creating SOCK and the processes and strategies that students can apply in their SOCK creation journey. This unit was not designed to replace the supervisors’ role in guiding and mentoring doctoral students. Instead, this unit supplemented supervisors’ guidance and support.
  • Authentic learning: This unit did not apply a traditional type of teaching in which students learn the contents by memory. Instead, students were expected to ‘get their hands dirty’ and create their own relevant contents.
  • Research communication skills development: Students were provided with ample opportunities to practise pitching the originality and significance of their research to non-specialist peers in a safe learning environment and to get their feedback.

Students’ feedback

The unit received an excellent student feedback in 2020. One student said the unit was ‘a one-stop knowledge arena for PhD students to make their research impactful’, helping them to ‘push an invention towards innovation’.

Developing HDR students’ research engagement and impact capabilities further

This unit is only the initial process. I believe that there is much more that Australian graduate schools can do to enhance HDR students’ research engagement and impact capabilities further. After being equipped with research engagement and impact capabilities, doctoral graduates who become academics will have an early understanding of why research excellence/research impact matters. Those who work in non-academic roles will understand the nature of research excellence/research impact and know how to work collaboratively with academics to drive impact from academic research. As such, this training component can work as a first critical step to help Australia close its research-innovation translation gap.

About the author: Dr Huong Nguyen

Dr Huong Nguyen has 20 years of experience working as a researcher, educator, and middle level academic manager in both Australia and Vietnam. She holds a PhD in Higher Education Policy and Management from The University of Melbourne, specialising in university research capacity building. As an Academic Manager and Lecturer at Graduate Studies, Swinburne University of Technology (2017 – 2020), she developed, coordinated, and taught in the completely new whole of university inter-disciplinary Graduate Certificate of Research and Innovation Management (GC-RESIM). Dr Nguyen led the development and implementation of two new cores from scratch: INF60016, Project management for Research and ENT60010, Innovation and Impact in Research. Dr Nguyen founded and led iVANet-RDP – a community online Researcher Development Program that connected 38 successful PhD qualified Vietnamese academics and industry leaders with thousands of Vietnamese research students from different genders, disciplines, ages, career stages. She is currently a policy analyst at UNESCO IESALC, the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean and a Teaching Associate at Monash University.

Photo by Justyn Warner on Unsplash

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