There was a time with research practice that all a research student needed to do was finish their research degree and this would set them up in a post research degree career. This career was often in academia as a researcher. Research supervisors at that time focussed on teaching the student during their candidature how to do research and how to write about their research in the defined styles of the dissertation. There were limited discussions about what would happen after the student graduated, as the pathway for many research degrees was assumed to lead to an academic position. Aware of this, some supervisors might encourage their research students to supplement their research with some teaching opportunities to begin to build up a teaching repertoire.
The contemporary research trends in Australia, and I suspect in other countries around the world, appear to be governed by three main agendas:
1. Broadening the horizon of employment outcomes from academic to include industry and professional practice.
2. Making the skill set arising from a research degrees explicit.
3. Helping a student achieve completion by highlighting such skills as project management.
These agendas have been an outcome of a Research Training agenda that has been implemented in Australia since 2001 and may well have similar initiatives in other countries.
As many research supervisors base their own research supervision strategies on those they experienced during their own candidature, they may find a lack of suitable strategies to address these emerging agendas. Beyond the encouragement to present at conferences to create opportunities to network in the field, and possibly to co-author with the supervisor to expand their publication list, a contemporary research supervisor may feel they are short of strategies. This challenge can represent a new pathway for many research supervisors.
With a broader range of employment options, and more competition for some of those places, research graduates are being encouraged to articulate the sets of skills that they have acquired through the candidature process. It is no longer sufficient to suggest that completing a particular degree is all that is needed in applying for some jobs. There are criteria and an applicant needs to draw from their candidature experiences to show how those experiences have met the nominated selection criteria.
Industry has taken a lead role in the contemporary research field and has nominated what they consider to be attributes of a good research graduate. These attributes are generally called Graduate Research attributes or capabilities. One way a research supervisor can assist their student’s post research degree career is to expose them to the sort of language that is evident in Graduate Research capabilities and help them to recognise these capabilities in their own research practice.
Project planning is a good example. Potential employers want research graduates to be able to plan and monitor their research projects. A research student may well have done this in the completion of their candidature, but may be unaware of the skills they have been using to meet candidature deadlines, to devise ways to undertake research and to monitor their progress against benchmarks in progress reports. When a research student does any of these things in the process of their candidature, if the supervisor makes this explicit for them, it highlights their awareness of the capability and the experiences that led to that capability.
In many cases of post research degree careers, the candidature explores the field in which they have undertaken their research. If they have been presenting at conferences and networking, these are the likely people whom they will know. Another initiative that a research supervisor can take is to encourage their student to explore alternate fields. Some employers recognise that a research degree brings with it a range of useful skills that can be applied in a variety of settings. They need to view their candidature as an exposure to the research process rather than an investigation into a particular topic. A process can be carried into field much broader than the field in which their particular investigative topic was situated.
Suggesting that these agendas are pedagogies risks contention. Adding them to the repertoire of what is taught in the supervisory relationship provides some insurance that they will not be overlooked, or worse still so taken for granted that they are not even mentioned.
When I suggest taught I am thinking in a reflective way. Helping a student to reflect on what they are learning from the process of undertaking an investigation, and possibly giving some labels to what they are learning, is a useful way to build up their confidence in talking about what they see as the benefits of their research degree; particularly articulating the benefits to potential employers.
The act of facilitating a student’s reflection can also benefit the research supervisor in developing a different window of reflection for their own practice as a researcher, which in turn may enable them to talk about their own research slightly differently.