Professor Susan Kinnear
Dean, School of Graduate Research, CQUniversity Australia
I started my doctorate at 21. Until then, my extent of work experience was driveway assistant at my family’s petrol station (i.e., washing windscreens for spare change), part-time work at a boarding school to support my undergraduate studies and a few stints as lab tutor for Biology 101. At the time, PhD stipend scholarships were awarded predominantly based on academic grades – fortunately for me, because had it been on the basis of ‘industry skills’, my application would have been at the bottom of the pile.
Just over a decade later, early in my Dean’s tenure, I was worrying aloud to our Deputy Chancellor that our university lacked the ‘vibe’ enjoyed by graduate schools at larger universities. I’d thought this was because CQUniversity had a quite low proportion of candidates in the bright-eyed, mid-20s age group, busy with full-time research studies. As I explained, the average age across our cohort is instead 46 years, with most being part-time scholars due to their family, career and community commitments. Her response was immediate: what an amazingly capable and powerful group you must have to work with! As I quickly learned, this group offers a richness of knowledge, skills and experience that I simply didn’t have as a doctoral student in my early twenties. But how could we better harness the value lying latent here?
In 2020, we surveyed the CQUniversity research higher degree cohort to collect information on industry experience prior to candidature, the extent and nature of industry connections forged during candidature, and our candidate’s aspirations for engaging with industry after graduation. Response rates were low (understandably, most people were in the thick of COVID19 response at the time) but generally representative of the broader cohort. From around 100 replies, candidates reported an average employment history of more than 20 years prior to commencing their research degree, across small business, large corporations, government and self-employment. Almost half of respondents indicated that their previous professional background was ‘strongly linked’ with the research topic now being pursued in their degree; and almost two-thirds of respondents were currently juggling paid employment concurrently with research studies. These trends mirrored those already observed in the dataset collected in a previous survey in 2018.
Acknowledging this demographic invites some intriguing questions about research training, Australia’s future research workforce, and how to realise the full potential of a mature-aged, professionally experienced graduate research cohort. For example:
- What does “upskilling”, internships and research training for “industry employability” look like, for people who’ve already been in the workforce for two decades?
- Is industry experience recognised and rewarded enough when considering applications for admission or scholarships? Is our scholarship system structured so that it’s accessible to people with existing financial commitments and a need to study part-time? What other means of support might be appropriate?
- How can we better deploy this group as essential players in bridging the university-industry relationship gap that appears so entrenched in Australian research effort?
There is an urgency and special passion in people who’ve already ‘been there, done that’ in the workforce. They understand industry problems and are clear on wanting to achieve something – to make a real research impact – in the window of time left remaining in their careers. With a foot firmly in ‘both camps’ as researchers and as practitioners, this cohort should be fantastic asset in overcoming the often-cited barriers to industry-university collaboration, like a lack of common goals and language, or favouring pontification over practical solutions to real-world problems. Given this, we need to carefully support these professionals to commit to a research degree, to complete it successfully (especially when sector-wide data currently suggest that completion rates decline with a candidate’s age ) and most importantly, to remain firmly connected to their industry as well as their university, during and after candidature.
Another re-set of thinking is in whom we consider “industry” to be. So often, the industry aspect of research relationships is cast as a situation where academic faculty are sent out to ‘go and engage’ with industry end-users, being somehow defined as the people who live and work beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, universities are asked to report on exactly that. But perhaps we are looking and counting in the wrong place: in some cases, industry are actually amongst the academy – they are living in our research student cohorts. We know that many research candidates benefit from collaborating with industry partners – but is currently unclear how many more are our industry partners and how well they straddle being both research candidates and research end-users.
At this time of year, CQUniversity runs an annual photo competition amongst our research trainees and their supervisors. “RHDSelfie” is a way of learning about each other, our research interests and instilling a sense of community spirit (maybe even to create some ‘vibe’!). A week ago, one of our offshore candidates, Martina Paletova, submitted a photo of herself at work administering the COVID19 vaccine in her country. She described exhausting times; with long shifts delivering 20 jabs per hour. Yet despite the intensity of the work, she still finds time to pursue a PhD, for a thesis close to her heart: “Who takes care of nurses during the world pandemic?”. It’s studies like these that have clear potential for positive impact, and which would be all the richer for being studied by someone who knows the field intimately and can take the new knowledge back to the coalface.
Since COVID19 interrupted our lives and the university sector, much has been said about shoring up stability and job security for our early career researcher (ECR) workforce. That’s absolutely needed; but it’s important to remember that ECRs aren’t just 25-year-olds looking for a university-based postdoc (like I was – and didn’t find). They can also be accomplished professionals looking to apply newfound research skills, into an industry that they already call home. Perhaps it is time for an industry-based early career researcher scheme? In regional Australia especially, enabling graduates to access research-intensive industry positions would grow communities and allow local industries to maximise productivity, sustainability and their post-COVID response through access to in-house, homegrown research expertise.
Our research scholars are already working as our healthcare providers, our teachers, our emergency services personnel, our engineers and our artists. Their impact occurs on a daily basis, even before graduation – and that impact should grow even further as their research skills develop. Australian research degrees could thus do more than focus on ‘placing people into industry’ or setting them to work on industry problems – as important and necessary as those things are. Instead, we could recognise, report and support research trainees of all ages as being a genuine part of ‘industry’, through their ongoing participation in the labour market.
We need people like Martina to stay at the frontline and keep making their impact. We also need them to be equipped with the creative, analytical, independent and entrepreneurial outlook that a good research qualification should provide. This cohort can be changemakers, bridging the worlds between universities and industry, during and after their graduate research training. But, the question remains – just like the Deputy Chancellor asked me – when and how?