From the Crossley Lab: PhD training and the future of work


It is increasingly obvious that not all graduating PhD students will move on to roles in academia. The number of students undertaking PhDs continues to grow but the rate of research funding expansion is slowing. The inevitable consequence is that a higher proportion of students will move out to contribute in other fields, like industry, the public service, teaching or even politics.

That is no bad thing and as this realisation dawns it is often said that PhD training should adapt to take the diverse career trajectories into account.

People ask why are we still teaching students in the master/apprentice model and focussing on research skills, if they will not all become researchers? And isn’t there a danger that we are teaching students to know more and more about less and less, so, ultimately, they know everything about nothing?

Shouldn’t we be concentrating more on generic skills and introduce required courses, in: commercialisation, communication, project management, critical thinking, and ethics? Isn’t this what employers want? And shouldn’t we be up-skilling our graduates for “the jobs that have not been invented yet” and ensuring that our research students are on top of the latest applications of Artificial Intelligence, data science, and coding?

Surely, we should also avoid turning out students who are narrowly one dimensional. In addition to training in STEM, our students should be exposed to STEAM with the A referring to the arts. Don’t they need an awareness of cultural diversity, social sciences and soft skills that are so very important today?

It is hard to argue against any of this, except perhaps to say that if you try to do everything you end up doing nothing.

It reminds me of when my sister was being introduced to languages at high school. Realising that so many languages were important in a global world, she learnt a term of Indonesian, a term of German, and a term of French. Then having had a smattering of everything and having learnt nothing in depth, she lost interest and abandoned learning languages.

The world is more diverse than ever and there is more knowledge than ever, but it is a mistake to try to learn everything. It’s far better to try to do a few things well.

PhD training is more like completing a marathon, swimming the English Channel, or dare I say it, climbing Mt Everest (recently it seems too many people are attempting that challenge).

There are three aspects to such training: first, there is the specialist disciplinary knowledge; second, there is the development of skills (trouble shooting skills, critical thinking, attention to detail, social skills (related to balancing team work and individual work); and third, there is the development of resilience and self-confidence.

The last is probably most important. Completing a PhD – the experimental or other research work, and a write-up of say fifty to 100 thousand words – is a lonely and confronting task. Once you have made the distance you are entitled to feel a little battle-hardened, confident and ready for new challenges.

Along the way most PhD students will also pick up many of the skills listed above employers value. As people say – you cannot develop critical thinking skills unless you have something to think about. Tackling a well-defined research problem is an excellent way to develop those skills.

Many students also get exposure to commercialisation, most hone their spoken and written communication skills, develop project management strategies and learn ethics, either informally or formally, from their community or via required inductions.

Beyond this, the global community does provide some of the necessary A to go into STEM and make STEAM. Most research students become aware of the history of science and of the way other cultures across the globe have contributed to their discipline and the different ways they may engage with research. Research has always been a borderless activity. Most labs have people from a range of cultures and most students will visit other countries to attend conferences or learn specialist techniques in other labs. As students near completion many will explore opportunities in other countries and continue to broaden their horizons and absorb global perspectives.

The main difference, of course, between a research degree and coursework is the level of self-direction. The teacher has a dominant role in coursework, setting the syllabus and the assessments, and then marking those. But in a research degree the teacher has a lesser role. They should always be there when needed but over time they will be needed less often as the student develops independence.

Supervisors need to fade out a little to ensure that students not only develop independence but fully feel that they are independent.  Inserting coursework into PhDs may have some advantages but it would also make PhDs more like every other degree, like taught bachelors degrees, and perhaps even a bit like MBAs or JDs. At present, PhDs stand out uniquely as training grounds where students truly demonstrate their independence and are then judged by independent examiners.

PhD training along the lines of the master/apprentice model still fulfils an important purpose. The theses not only contribute valuable research to society but the graduates grow in knowledge, capability and self-confidence.

That is not to say that introducing structure and innovations might not help in communicating the importance of this training to both students and to society at large but gradually converting PhDs into taught coursework degrees (which already exist as Masters) is unlikely to serve anyone’s interests.

There are two improvements I think would be worthwhile. I think we need to dispel the notion that PhDs can only be focussed on highly specialist and arcane topics that verge on the ridiculous. We must not encourage glib comments like, “I wonder how many vegetarians with beards drive sports cars – I bet there’s a good PhD in that!.”

It will not be popular but some “public interest declaration” could be contained within published theses and PhD seminars/defences should be as public as possible (already the titles are read out at graduations and some could be more carefully chosen). I remember one of my student’s thesis titles was read out in a speech at his wedding – it got a good laugh but did not capture the importance of his work – we should have done better!

The other addition I would make is moving experience in teaching from an option to an expectation. Many research students already lead tutorials or contribute to lab supervision as demonstrators or supervise short projects. I think it works well for everyone and would like to see it as the norm and proper credit to be recorded as an appendix in the thesis.

Beyond that I hope the PhD student as apprentice researcher endures for a while yet and I expect it will.



Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic