The new face of the research student

By WittyKnitter

In yesterday’s copy of The Australian there was an article about a new book by Frank Larkins, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, in which he opines that there should be fewer PhD students, and that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship:

“I would opt for fewer research students, pay them better and insist that they be full time and get them through the system,” Professor Larkins said after the launch of his book, Australian Higher Education: Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP). (itals mine)

This is worrying. Professor Larkins is clearly unaware of, or is denying, the current trends in research student (MPhil but more particularly PhD) enrolment, which you think he’d have known about. Doing a PhD has become much more of a learning journey in recent years, and much less of a ‘sausage factory’ in which students are pushed to ‘get them through the system’. The young, pressured PhD students in engineering (that I blogged about here) and science (Professor Larkin’s areas are listed on the university website as “(Chemistry) Chemical Physics, Synchrotron Science, Energy Policy”), are becoming a remnant of past times as the places in social sciences, humanities and health (including medicine) are being filled by mature students. These mature students are taking up to eight years to complete their part-time research degrees, after which (shock! horror!) they don’t necessarily join the ranks of academic staff or industry, but rather benefit a wide range of policy and practice areas throughout the nation with the new skills and insights they bring, often to work they’ve been involved in for many years already.

But more worrying is that the ill-informed and outdated opinion of Prof Larkins appears to be reflected in policy and practice around funding of research training. The federal department that controls that funding does not, as you might expect, have the word ‘education’ in its title: It is DIISR, the Department for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Gone are the days when Vice-Chancellors struggled to make Howard government Ministers for Education – Kemp 1997-2001 and Nelson 2001-2006 – understand how the Green and White papers of the early 2000s, that signalled funding policy changes for research training, would affect the way research was done and learned. Now, apparently, research is about innovation – which seems to be narrowly understood as being based only in science and applicable only to industry. Quality in Postgraduate Research conferences have been held biennially in Australia since 1994, and the government once used to send ministers and senior Education Department bureaucrats to speak at them. In 2008 they sent no-one; in 2010 the government was represented by a young public servant who, after presenting disconnected graphs describing support for ‘young researchers’ in science-related areas for over an hour, was completely baffled by the only question there was time for, which related to the actual demographics of PhD candidates in Australia.

This isn’t really a new problem; it’s a dinosaur problem. The following extract is from an article published seven years ago, informed by the only national study of PhD candidates ever undertaken:

…there are few who really appreciate the scope and diversity of doctoral education today, either within Australia or internationally. This is particularly telling in government and institutional policy discussions, where assumptions still prevail of greater homogeneity in the doctoral candidate profile, and doctoral programmes, than is the case. Doctoral candidates are still perceived as mostly full-time, young and being prepared for work. In fact, doctoral candidates have diverse cultural backgrounds, physical and other (dis)abilities and socio-economic circumstances. They are more likely to be between their mid thirties to mid forties, than mid twenties; they are just as likely to be part-time as fulltime; some come to doctoral study after employment in the workforce; they are likely to be undertaking their doctorate in a professional or professionally related field in which they are currently employed (see Pearson & Ford, 1997; Evans & Pearson, 1999; Evans 2002; Usher, 2002; Neumann, 2003). For the growth in doctoral student numbers (in Australia they have risen from 8744 in 1987 to 35 873 in 2003) has been accompanied by significant changes in their characteristics. For example, the proportion of part-time students has increased dramatically and is approaching 50% (Evans & Pearson, 1999; Pearson & Ford, 1997; Department of Education, Science and Training, 2003). Over 60% of doctoral graduates work outside universities, in government, administration, business, industry, media and elsewhere (Australian Research Council and Graduate Careers Council of Australia, 1999). Similar trends are evident internationally (Haworth, 1996; Lapidus, 1997; Green, 2002).

(From Pearson, M., Evans, T., & Macauley, P. D. (2004). The working lives of doctoral candidates: Challenges for research education and training. Studies in Continuing Education, 26(3), 347-353. emphasis mine)

I don’t know how PhD is administered at Melbourne Uni, but I think that it’s significant that Professor Larkins is DVC Research. It has been claimed in various places that PhD students do up to 67% of research in Australian universities (these claims seem to all stem from the unreferenced submission of the Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies to a government committee in 1997). Whether this is true or not – and I believe that the publications of PhD students are going to be ‘counted’ separately at some time in the future, so we might find out –  it’s clear that researchers, as well as administrators, have a strong interest in how PhD is done. But recently PhD matters at the University of Sydney have been moved from the Research portfolio to the Education portfolio. This reflects a growing interest in what and how students learn when they are doing a PhD. PhD candidates are student researchers, and the administrative shift moves the balance from ‘researcher’ to ‘student’.

While this move will not be the complete answer to wilful ignorance about the demographics of the PhD cohort, it gives me hope that students might not  be seen quite as often as ‘handle-crankers’, ‘cheap labour’, or sausages to be shoved through their PhDs as quickly as possible so  – what? they can emerge as semi-skilled lab managers doing post-docs (still cheap labour)? Doing a PhD shouldn’t be primarily about the needs of the research or the researcher; it should be about people learning what it means to do research in whatever discipline they choose. Even if they never do any research again (as is the case for many clinicians) they will understand research and be able to read it and incorporate it usefully into their practice. And that’s a so-far-unacknowledged benefit to the nation in the longer term.


  1. Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. Even in science, but outside his field, there are things where part-time is probably better, to let the data come in. You might be looking for epigenetic effects on second or third generations of animals, or long-term outcomes from a drug introduced 5 years ago. Outside hard sciences, e.g. outcomes at 25 from a changed secondary school curriculum, you certainly can’t make the data rush in.

    Perhaps he is using his own experience of “get new expensive toy, put sample under it, push button to get all the data for pretty graph” fields, or the kind of quick results businesses want (“can you do something to make our new drug look fantastic”). If so… It’s a limited perspective.

  2. Posted March 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    You’re right, Dave. The problem is that he’s in a powerful position a big research-intensive Uni, and yet he seems to be rather uninformed. And it’s really hard to get research money for big-long term projects these days. It’s all about the quick return.

  3. Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Excellent posting, such assumptions need unsettling.

  4. conrad
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    “Doing a PhD has become much more of a learning journey in recent years, and much less of a ‘sausage factory’ in which students are pushed to ‘get them through the system’”

    Actually, almost everywhere has gone the opposite direction, and not just in Australia — this is not surprising in Aus at least because you get funded based on how long your PhD student takes to complete. No doubt there are vindictive departments that fund supervisors based on that. In addition, in some places people are under tremendous pressure to get their PhD students finished “in time”. It’s worthwhile noting that this sort of pressure has changed even the best of places — a few years ago Cambridge changed it’s policy on PhDs which meant they went from what could be summarized as “something good” to “a large amount of something”.

    It’s also the case that different areas are different. For example, for all the areas where things are done in a hurry (e.g., some areas biology), you basically need a lab of cheap labor, and students basically work on the projects you give them, and this is never going to change (especially because you usually get to pick whom you supervise as a supervisor). Even some areas of the social sciences work like this, because you need to do a lot of testing, you need to use some expensive piece of machinery, or you need some project that you got grant money for done. Curiously, there are many students that want this — i.e., they want to be given a PhD project rather than think of one themselves (!!!).

    I think the other thing worth noting is the distribution of who is doing PhDs and the typical outcomes. First, most PhDs produce nothing or very little apart from their thesis. This is partially because quality is not expected in places like Australia and partially because many have hopeless supervisors who haven’t published anything of note themselves. Second, the growth in PhDs has not been homogeneous across areas — it’s concentrated on areas that the public wouldn’t love if they knew. It wouldn’t surprise me if we start getting rules to curb this, which will kill off the category of PhD student you are thinking about.

  5. Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    I have mixed views on this one, WK. I think that part of my problem lies in the way that issues are entangled in my mind.

    Some years ago, I worked in the Department you are referring to, and was one of those pushing for better commercialisation of the results from research. Later I became concerned at the way the outcomes were reducing free blue sky research. Later still, I became concerned at the way that the focus on vocation was destroying education for the sake of education.

    Because the issues are so muddled in my mind, I will try to write a companion post just disentangling it all.

  6. Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Conrad, three things. First, the time pressure does seem to have lessened since the early 2000s, when ‘the clock is ticking’ was a mantra for supervisors and students, due to government funding strictures. These turned out to be a lot less than feared by the late 2000s, and students are now routinely taking four years to complete and no-one seems particularly anxious about that. How funding it distributed to Unis, then to faculties/departments, is a mystery to me. All I know is that no supervisor I have ever spoken to has ever seen (in their research accounts) a cent of the money that the government gives the Uni when a student completes.

    Secondly, valuing PhDs by ‘outputs’ is exactly the kind of thinking I am trying to unpack. There are many outputs that can’t be measured, that don’t relate to publications or future research projects, but are still beneficial to the nation.

    Thirdly, quality of supervisors/supervision is a very interesting issue, but is a tangled ball of yarn! Training regimes and managerial check systems can and have been installed, but of course they can’t really do anything to get at inadequate understandings of supervisors of what a PhD could be. Too many frame it as the experience they had when they were a student (there’s lots of literature about this), and don’t really engage with creative ideas at all (may even be threatened by them), let alone acknowledge that it’s different for everyone. In other words, they don’t learn from their experiences supervising; they are stuck in their experiences as students, sometimes for many years.

  7. Alistair McCulloch
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    It should come as little surprise that the ‘Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) of the University of Melbourne,….opines that there should be fewer PhD students, and that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship’ because that would be one way of ensuring the continued domination of the research league tables which are coming to play a more significant part in the Australian University system as they already have in the UK. The ‘big’ and more traditional universities don’t really need part-time PhD students and, in some ways, they just get in the way adminitsratively at least. it is the smaller (in research terms at least) universities, those which are oriented towards professional and techological development/collaboration, and those in which history and institutional values have promoted the notion of widening participation and equity in higher educaiton which are more engaged in this area with regards to doctoral education. This statement is nothing more than another play in the game of securing more institutional resources for the country’s oldest universities.

    If the country is to increase its proportion of ‘doctoral-educated worker’ to the levels already achieved by many western countries and to promote doctoral education as part of mid-career professional development and lifelong learning (remember that liberal ideal of what educaiton should be about), then an increase rather than a descrease is what’s needed!!!

  8. conrad
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    “All I know is that no supervisor I have ever spoken to has ever seen (in their research accounts) a cent of the money that the government gives the Uni when a student completes. ”

    This all depends on the university you work at — all of these things do. Where I work, we get a trivial reward (I think $1000 per completion). At one stage we got threatened with not being given any workload hours if our students took over 5 years — so a number of people said okay, we won’t supervise those students then and they had to relent due to the mess it would have caused (I had one student given to me by someone who quit for other reasons, and he was already there!). I think now they just kick them out instead. This is typical across universities in Aus — you obviously work somewhere that isn’t quite as driven by money as my work.

  9. Posted March 12, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Conrad. you’ve touched on a number of interesting points here. I agree that supervisors should benefit from the student’s successful completion; even though research supervision is reported by many supervisors to be one of their more enjoyable tasks, it is one of the few for which the rewards (ie federal funding to the Uni) can be quantified. I have heard it said that if it were rewarded by a payment to the supervisor on completion, that might encourage poorer academics who presently dodge the work to supervise more students, which wouldn’t be good for the students. I’m not sure about that; it would be a management issue for the department or faculty concerned, I suppose.

    Students are not federally funded beyond 3.5-4 years f/t equivalent – i.e. they have to pay their own fees. So they’re not exactly being ‘kicked out’ after that, but most choose to leave rather than pay, unless they can see they might finish in a semester. There are lots of ways a round this – eg, call the student p/t for the last year which effectively gives them another year to complete, but gives the Uni only half the fee for that time.

    As for being driven my money – I dont’ think academics at Sydney are any less driven by money than others, but the arcane and mysterious nature of finance at Sydney mitigates against people being able to figure out what they ‘should’ get – and faculties obviously don’t help in this process, as they money goes to them. I’d love to know more about this, but have had difficulty getting good information.

  10. conrad
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    “I have heard it said that if it were rewarded by a payment to the supervisor on completion, that might encourage poorer academics who presently dodge the work to supervise more students, which wouldn’t be good for the students”
    One of the curious things about Australian students (unlike American students) is that they almost never seem to choose supervisors based on things that might make them good (apart from being nice), so I don’t think this makes any difference (our reward, incidentally, is framed in terms of a “thank-you” versus “do-harder” — which is all it could be given the effort involved). Obviously a quick Scopus-search, which works fine for my field, is beyond them. I also think that there are enough reasons for poor supervisors to take students without monetary rewards such that it is always going to happen anyway — some are desperate to publish something (perhaps anything) and they think it is just a numbers game, it makes others feel important, some are just deluded and finally it may also subtract off their workload (no doubt there are other reasons too).
    This is the pattern everywhere I know of in Aus incidentally — In the current department where I work, for example, there is a really big distribution in terms of how good people are at research. We have a few people that have published some of the best stuff that you can, and some people that have never published anything. Funnily enough, the most popular supervisors seem to be those that have published nothing of note (and a few of them, nothing at all) — this is true even for students who confess they would like to do research as a career. It makes me cringe when I sit in their yearly presentations and they have obviously been given advice with negative scientific value from their supervisors about how they should approach some question.

  11. Posted March 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Many years ago I was an honours History student at Sydney University. I came sixth in the year; there were four first class honours handed out. After the event, it was pointed out to me I had accepted a supervisor who did not publish. It simply never occurred to me that this was an issue. Or that I should actively seek out/choose a particular supervisor. I just naively accepted the process. Apparently, that attitude is alive and well. But why would I have thought differently? I was the first generation of my family to do an honours degree (or to go to university, as distinct from Teacher’s College). There was no background information, no formal or informal mentoring.

  12. Posted March 13, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    WK, I have put up the companion post as promised –

  13. conrad
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink


    1) for honours it doesn’t make much difference — the objectives are very different to a PhD.
    2) This is 2011, not 1990 (or whenever you did your honours. Since I have noticed that you seem to know one or two people I knew from those days, I’ll assume that’s about right!).
    3) In 1990, it was PItA to get data on people — no web, and you had to look through those books where what people published was all archived. Now you just type their name into Web of Science or Scopus, and this takes 5 seconds.
    4) In 1990, if you got a PhD and hadn’t published anything, you could probably still get an academic job. If you’d published a little, you could get a research fellowship. In 2011, if you want, for example, an early career Aus post-doctoral fellowship (now DECRA), you probably need 4 first author publications, 1 which should be very good and the other good.

  14. Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    [email protected] You’re almost a decade out, but bless you 🙂

    All good points. It reminds me of a joke I was told in first year:
    In Oxford, the lecturer walks in and says “good morning”. The students are very full of themselves for being at Oxford, so they ignore him.
    In St Andrews, he lecturer walks in and says “good morning”. The students, being well brought up Scots lads and lasses are very polite and respond with “good morning”.
    In Australia, the lecturer walks in and says “good morning” and the students write it down.

    Perhaps there is a cultural thing going on …

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