Impact Blog

Research Student Training in the Pandemic era. What do and will our students need?

August 2020
A/Prof Paige Maguire
Director, Graduate Research Education and Development, Queensland University of Technology

Since the release of the Review of Australia’s Research Training System by the Australian Council of Learning Academies in 2016, Australian universities have developed various models to engage their graduate research students in developing the skills needed in a broader knowledge-based economy and workplace. These institutional responses have led to some significant changes in doctoral programs which are premised on a national discourse on greater graduate employability outside of the academy, with less than 30% of PhD graduates being employed in academia. These changes have included shifts towards pro-skills doctoral training programs where universities like QUT have built the development of transferable and industry relevant skills into their candidature models. Such programs have arguably also changed the expectations and perceptions of doctoral students in recent years regarding their own training needs during candidature; which traditionally had been centred around academic skills.

However, in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis the Higher Education sector has experienced sudden and vast changes in its funding and employment landscapes, delivering greater uncertainty for our graduate research students employment prospects.  In light of this emerging crisis, student engagement with these programs may increase or change due to different priorities and this may require another pivot by the sector towards new models of supporting our students through and past the impacts of the pandemic.

At QUT we have developed the Graduate Research Education and Development framework, consisting of 20 skills which we ask our graduate research students to consider and develop during candidature. These skills are comprised of those required to be evidenced in an AQF 9/10 research degree (e.g. academic writing, critical thinking, research methodologies) and those identified by employers as “sought-after” skills in research graduates (e.g. leadership, financial concepts, communication & collaboration skills, time and project management). Engagement with the offerings to support development of these skills is self-directed by students via a bespoke self-assessment tool which allows individuals to assess their competency in each skill and, based on their assessment, will then identify their individual training needs by directing them to specific offerings developed and delivered within QUT. Typical usage of the tool suggests that students will self-assess their competency early in candidature at higher levels and then as their understanding of graduate employability and skills improves, they will reassess their skills gaps more candidly as they progress through candidature.

Since the onset of the pandemic in late Q1 2020 our Graduate Research Education and Development unit have seen a significant increase in overall student engagement with all skills development, but with some emerging trends. More specifically, we have seen the highest rates of engagement in offerings that support research students in their writing and in their ability to engage with potential employers.  While it is unsurprising that students would seek to support their progress via writing during a time in which access to their research has been disrupted, it is unprecedented to see such elevated numbers (over 200% increase) of graduate research students who are seeking to develop better interview, job/internship applications and career support.

These early observations may indicate that during and after the pandemic, research students may need different or greater access to training in specific skills areas in order to obtain employment and that this may impact on existing program designs if these skills areas are not aligned or not fully resourced in current programs. In our case, QUT research students have recently demonstrated a greater need for explicit careers support specific to research students across multiple engagements from career roundtables and workshops discussing HDR specific issues to individual 1:1 consultations; and these have been motivated by their employability concerns both during candidature and after completion.

In the current university environments of hire freezes and budget restrictions, how to support additions or increases to these resource and staff intensive programs or providing external offerings is of course the “million dollar question”. Despite this, as a sector it will be important to monitor student engagement with our “pro-skills” programs and identify any emerging trends that may require a pivot, particularly in an employment landscape that is completely uncertain for graduates.

Photo by Branko Stancevic on Unsplash

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