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Researchers for tomorrow

A heated debate over how to train PhD students for the jobs awaiting them has percolated for 15 years in Europe and the U.S. It's high time for a Canadian discussion


Bright-eyed and bursting with excitement, the PhD student enters my office to announce the first validation of our hypothesis. As we rush off to the lab to observe the result together, our conversation is punctuated by exclamations. Before we can celebrate the joy of discovery, however, it is my role as thesis adviser to raise doubts and ask questions.

For university professors, conducting research and training researchers are inextricably linked. Training tomorrow’s researchers is a proud undertaking, and it is vital that it remain this way.

These researchers-in-the-making are by far the most important “vehicles” for the transfer of university research to society. This transfer has all the more impact since PhD graduates are not merely the users but also the creators of knowledge. And it is all the more relevant because the transfer occurs in all disciplines, which is not the case with commercialization of research. Given today’s changing job market, how can we better prepare this vital transfer?

The advent of the knowledge-based economy has had two major impacts on researcher training. First, most countries have sought to significantly increase the number of students enrolled in graduate programs. This holds true for Canada, where the number of full-time PhD students has grown 48 percent since 2000, from 24,000 to 35,000 in 2006, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Second, prospects for candidates after obtaining their PhD have changed. Even more jobs acquired after a PhD or postdoctoral work – which has become a prerequisite in some disciplines – are in non-university settings. In Canada, two out of three PhD graduates will not become university professors.

This is good news. More and more PhD graduates are taking up positions in the wider society, and they now have more diverse career opportunities. However, this has also gradually created new expectations with respect to training. In Canada, given the recent acceleration in enrolment, the need to equip graduates with the ability to occupy a wide range of jobs has become more pressing than ever. Having more PhD graduates present in Canadian society is, of course, a definite asset, but the transfer of university research still has to take place, and society has to ensure these graduates have enough good jobs.

This begs the question: Does doctoral training need to be adapted to take into account these new career prospects? Many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, have already tackled this question. What lessons can we learn from them and what challenges await us?

Time to revise the plan

For the past 15 years, doctoral training has been widely debated in the international arena, generating thousands of articles and scores of studies, seminars, books and recommendations. This reflection has involved academic societies, researchers, universities, students, employers and philanthropic foundations. You only have to scratch the surface to discover the abundance of the literature.

There are two schools of thought on doctoral training. Some argue that training in and through research is universal training and should not be tampered with. These are the proponents of the “one-model-fits-all” school of thought. They emphasize that the fabulous progress achieved by science validates this point of view. This is the prevailing position in Canada, which explains why PhD training has changed little if at all up to now.

Others argue strongly that changes are required and the status quo cannot be maintained over the medium and long term. The National Academy of Science’s 1995 report, Re-shaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, and the report Re-envisioning the PhD, published in 2000 and funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, have been very influential in calling for these changes. Proponents argue that if training does not adapt, there will be a shortage of quality jobs for graduates, leading to a possible decline in research vocations.

Before we dismiss these concerns out-of-hand and react as if we are being unjustly criticized for the training we provide with such energy and passion, it is useful to review the literature and to reflect on what is really at stake. Having thought about this issue for the past five years, I can state unequivocally that the learning in-and-through research model, which strives for depth and originality, is the very cornerstone of training and must remain so. However, I am also convinced that we can build on the basis of this framework to bring about changes that will better prepare our PhD graduates for their role in furthering progress in society.

Strengths and weaknesses

It is important to keep in mind the great strengths of doctoral training. It is these distinguishing values that must be preserved and even reinforced, regardless of the improvements we are seeking.

One of these strengths is the transformation of students from users into creators of knowledge. “The heart of the PhD experience is the psychological transition from a state of being instructed on what is known to a state of personally discovering things that were not previously known.” (Doctoral Studies and Qualifications in Europe and the United States: Status and Prospects, UNESCO, 2004 (PDF)). Also of value is the unique pedagogical formula, in which doctoral students learn in and through research. The apprentice-researcher thus carries out a project with increasing independence, accompanied by a companion researcher.

The ability to formulate original and important questions or hypotheses, to reconfigure and adapt complex or advanced knowledge, and to solve new problems are also elements that constitute the strength of doctoral studies. As Robert Day explains in his book, How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, researchers become known on the basis of their publications. The ability to explain discoveries or creations, and to submit them to evaluation by peers and the scientific community, is an essential asset of this approach.

While recognizing the strengths of doctoral training, the literature highlights a certain number of commonly recurring deficiencies as well. The training is criticized for being too narrow, too individualized, too local and not sufficiently open-minded, to the detriment of a well-rounded scientific palette, according to Jules LaPidus, former president of the U.S. Council of Graduate Students, in A Walk Through Graduate Education. Another report, Re-envisioning the PhD, shows that employers concur with this assessment. One states, “I don’t want him to dig in the same hole; I want him to know where to dig.”

Another criticism is that personal and professional skills are not being sufficiently developed, which in turn hinders the successful completion of the PhD and employment prospects inside and outside the university setting. In a workshop organized in 2004 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canadian employers stated that quantity was not as important as “addressing the quality question. There is a need to improve skills.” Also, a new study on professional needs of graduate students by Sunny Marche, associate dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University, reveals striking differences between Dalhousie graduate students, faculty members and alumni in the value they place on various professional skills.

Supervision of graduate students is tending to become more of a management-type process with the goal of obtaining results, rather than the goal of accompanying researchers in their training. Dr. LaPidus wonders, “Is the result a research result or a researcher?” PhD candidates often emphasize that their project is prolonged to ensure a source of cheap labour, rather than to benefit their education.

The literature notes that evaluations are infrequent and focus more on evaluating the research than the training. This causes problems of quality assurance, with little feedback on supervision, programs and workplace integration.

Lastly, some claim that the study period is too long and success rates are too low. These two items are of particular concern to university heads and PhD student associations. Frank J. Elgar’s study, PhD Completion in Canadian Universities (2003), argues that talent is being wasted.

Current experiments

Re-shaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers has made a crucial recommendation, namely that we must maintain the strengths of PhD training while enriching the doctoral path to ensure better preparation for various research jobs.

“The process of graduate education is highly effective in preparing students whose careers will focus on academic research. It must continue this excellence to maintain the strength of our national science enterprise. … But graduate education must also serve better the needs of those whose careers will not center on research. … We recommend that the graduate-education – particularly at the department level – implement several basic reforms to enhance the educational experience of future scientists who will work in either academic or non-academic settings.”

Among the various experiments taking place, two are of particular interest. In the United States, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and the IGERT program (Integrative Graduate Educational Research Trainingship), launched by the National Science Foundation in 1997, are now supporting more than 150 projects. In the United Kingdom, the New Route PhD and training programs set up to apply the recommendations of the Joint Skills Statement (2004) have prioritized the following skills: research know-how, understanding the research environment, research management, personal effectiveness, communication know-how, teamwork and networking skills, and career management.

In Canada, PhD training has not yet been subject to debate and experimentation to the same degree as in the United States and Europe. No formal recommendations have been proposed. However, some pioneers have launched initiatives that are mostly directed by Teaching and Learning Centres within Canadian universities. The first colloquium on the subject of professional skills for new researchers was organized in July 2007 by the three federal granting agencies in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Overall, similar experiments have made inroads. However, many authors have emphasized in recent years that making lists of “soft” skills and creating supplementary courses without an overall framework and without a link to the research project is a step in the wrong direction – it is time-consuming and will generate so-called “Teflon” knowledge that is superficial and of little added value.

Our project

Better preparing researchers of tomorrow requires a systemic approach that supports training through research in order to focus on strengths and address certain weaknesses. These are the ingredients that we have attempted to assemble in our current experiment at Université de Sherbrooke. I sincerely thank the professors, students and external experts who have contributed to this initiative.

The project brings together the faculties of engineering, science, medicine and health sciences. It does not seek to become a model, but rather an experimental contribution that aims to better prepare our young researchers for a wider range of occupations, while consolidating their scientific training. It includes several original elements.

Firstly, it is a systemic approach that aims to improve interdisciplinary collaboration, enrich skills, widen frameworks, create an enhanced sense of responsibility in doctoral candidates and assure quality. This fully integrated approach distinguishes itself from others that merely offer a few extra courses “à la carte.”

The project also constitutes a melting pot of 17 programs, thereby promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. Doctoral candidates – by presenting and defining their projects, preparing and presenting article summaries or papers, and analyzing ethical questions related to their projects – learn to open their minds to other disciplines through constructive and enriching dialogue.

The enrichment of doctoral candidates’ scientific, personal and professional skills is achieved through activities specifically linked to their research project. The main skills targeted are:

  • writing and publishing a scientific article;
  • conducting a research or innovation project;
  • taking charge of one’s career;
  • integrating ethics in research activities;
  • protecting and adding value to knowledge;
  • teaching in a university setting.

These workshops have been set up by and for researchers and experts; they are not pre-existing training courses or ones that have been adapted. By emphasizing linkages with the research project, progress is made on several fronts. For example, doctoral candidates devote six to eight days, which represents only three percent of their time over one year, to learning to develop, define, plan and complete their own research project. They gain in terms of efficiency and motivation and acquire a transferable skill that will serve them well in their future careers.

There is more supervision, with the establishment of advisory committees for diversified skills and knowledge; the goal is to support the doctoral candidate, not only towards scientific progress but also in their personal and professional development. The candidate develops responsibility through adapting and implementing a doctoral path inspired by good practices for conducting a research project.

Initial evaluations are very encouraging. More than 95 percent of doctoral candidates say they would recommend these activities, which shows the activities are meeting a need. Some candidates have said that without the advisory committee and the doctoral path, they would have abandoned their studies. All have stressed that their motivation has grown, been reinforced and even reinvigorated by these activities. Motivation is clearly the driving force for researchers.

Challenges for Canada

The first challenge is to launch a significant debate in Canada on doctoral training. We need to reflect carefully, take an inventory of the existing knowledge, and involve the principal players, namely, professor-researchers, students and employers. It is also necessary to convince governments and granting agencies to invest in improving the human and intellectual potential of our young researchers and not merely invest in the commercial value of research; in the words of well-known urban studies scholar Richard Florida, in “leveraging talent, not technology.”

The second challenge will be to encourage research-action projects with the dual objective of reinforcing the quality of training in and through research and, secondly, better preparing doctoral candidates in their role as agents of progress in society. If Canada wishes to become a leader in researcher training, it must support projects based on the triad of training, supervision and quality assurance. It would be useful to encourage inter-university and inter-sector partnerships (academic, private, public) in training, as is already the case in other countries and as we already do in research. Funding could come from granting agencies, government departments of education and employment, and philanthropic foundations, which are very active in this field in the United States.

Embarking on this major undertaking will allow us to restore to training in and through research the vital importance it deserves by responding to the challenge posed by the “transfer” of graduates towards a diverse range of occupations. Canada will then be in a position to benefit from the full potential of its investment in the training of researchers, who will then go on to become important agents of progress in society.

Jean Nicolas, a professor of mechanical engineering, holds the Chair for Innovation in Research Training at Université de Sherbrooke, where he was previously vice-president, research. He thanks Alexandre Bourque for valuable suggestions for this article.

Weaknesses of PhD holders cited by U.S. employers

  • Fear of risk
  • Time is not valued
  • Priorities are not established
  • There is no “big picture”
  • Poor “people skills”
  • Fail to move beyond personal curiosity
  • Lack of openness to other problems and needs
  • Poor project management
Jean Nicolas
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  1. Eduardo Jasson / November 7, 2008 at 17:00

    I think this article is excellent for its conception. The idea that a Phd must be capable of imagine new things rather than only build on existing knolwedge is a paradox.

    In thw world is creating more knowledge out of the universities than inside them.

    Unfortunately that creates a problem, how to give space in the universities to imagine rather than discover in the strict sense, but also how the society and organizations or companies can value more the capabilities of Academics to imagine rather than researching under the traditional conception.

    Both problems creates a great divide and a big gap to transform Academic society relationship in one that is effectivly cooperative.