Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Research Education

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), delivered a report on "The Research Education Experience: Investigating Higher Degree by Research Candidates’ Experiences in Australian Universities" for the Department of Industry, 7 May 2012. Universities are under pressure to produce more work relevant higher degrees. Alongside the traditional PHD and Masters by research there are more programs with coursework and publication.

The expected career paths for postgraduate students is changing. Previously universities assumed that postgraduate education was for an academic career, teaching and researching in a tenured position. Most postgraduates now work in government and industry. There are relatively few secure positions in universities, with teaching being undertaken by part time staff, having no research role.

The same pressures which are changing the way undergraduate courses are provided at universities are now impacting postgraduate education. Online courses are changing the way education is provided. There is no reason not to expect postgraduate research education will move online. I will be examining this issue for the rest of the year.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements 3
  • List of Figures and Tables 5
  • Executive Summary 8
  • Best Practice Key Findings 9
  • Introduction 10
  • The Research Training Experience 12
  • Methodology 13
  • Survey and Focus Group Findings 16
  • Supervision 16
  • Minimum Resources Policies and Practices 20
  • Collegiality 30
  • Focus Group Discussion: Education and Mature-Age Candidates 35
  • Education Focus Group 35
  • Mature-Age Multi-Disciplinary Focus Group 40
  • Case Studies 42
  • James, Early 20s, Full-Time ICT Masters, Regional University 42
  • Billy, Mid 20s, Full-Time Sociology PhD, Regional University 44
  • Nina, Early 30s, Part-Time Physiotherapy PhD, Metropolitan University 48
  • Peter, Mid 30s, Full-Time Tourism MPhil, Regional University 53
  • Nancy, Early 40s, Full-Time Geography PhD, Research Intensive University 57
  • Gina, Late 40s, Part-Time Health Sciences PhD, Regional University 60
  • Dennis, Early 60s, Full-Time Social Sciences PhD, Regional University 64
  • Mary, Mid 60s, Part-Time Creative Writing PhD, Metropolitan University 68
  • Conclusion 72
  • Appendix A: Demographics of Participants 73
  • Survey Demographics 73
  • Focus Group Demographics 75
  • Case Study Demographics 76
  • Appendix B: Survey Questions and Tabulated Responses 77
  • References 80


Executive Summary

This report is the product of a project carried out for the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA). The primary findings of this report are based on the outcomes of a national survey, 12 focus groups and 8 case studies of higher degree by research (HDR) candidates at 31 of Australia’s 39 universities. In total 1,166 students responded to the survey, and 125 were involved in the subsequent focus groups and case studies.

The Australian Government’s Research Workforce Strategy (RWS) and earlier reviews, including the Senate Inquiry into Research and Research Training, the Review of the National Innovation System, and the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education, all identified a number of issues around research training in Australia. While there was a great deal of data gathered by DIISRTE during the development of the RWS, much of it focused on employers and early career academics, with less information collected directly from research students.

A workshop conducted by the CAPA during the development of the RWS on behalf of the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research (DIISR), highlighted some of the broad themes of concern to research students, including but not limited to: quality of supervision, quality and availability of minimum resources and funding for the production and dissemination of research, collegiality, and academic independence.

For the in-depth interviews in our focus groups and case studies, we sought to highlight the experiences of HDR candidates at regional universities. If a general claim can be made, it is simply that those in smaller departments were more likely to have quite positive experiences of collegiality with their cohort and with academics, and though this happened in both metropolitan and regional universities, it came through more strongly from regional candidates. The only counter to this was that when things went wrong in very small disciplinary groupings, there was often nowhere to turn for support.

This report identifies how institutional, faculty and departmental policies and practices impact on all aspects of the research education experience, or what can be described as early-career academic life. HDR candidates experience tensions between what is encoded in policy statements and how this plays out in practice, which in turn can impact on progress, timely completions and career pathways. Where policy and practice are more closely aligned, we found HDR candidates having a much more positive research education experience, and more positive attitudes towards a research career.

According to our findings, candidates working within their disciplines, being mentored on research grants or as research assistants, or collaborating in applied research projects within universities or industry, are more likely to express satisfaction with their research education experience. Where there is synergy between the HDR candidate’s research and their employment during candidature, candidates are more likely to say they have felt valued and engaged with the process of emerging as an expert in their field.

What emerges strongly from this research is the need expressed by HDR candidates to feel that their research is valued, and that they personally are valued partners in their educational experience. Often this involves the opportunity to work and research alongside colleagues from other disciplines where they can learn more and broaden their own disciplinary knowledge.

Our findings demonstrate how dependent success and positive engagement are on quality of supervision, the provision of adequate funding for research, physical resourcing such as work spaces, technology, equipment, and access to relevant coursework, and opportunities for publication and presentation of research at academic conferences. HDR candidates expressed a desire for academic support to be mentored into autonomous researchers valued by their supervisors and academic colleagues as professionals with strong disciplinary knowledge and expertise.

Those whose primary enrolment status has been part time reported experiences of some frustration at lack of access to the same level of resources as their full-time colleagues, but for many this is outweighed by the benefits of working to a longer time frame and being able to balance family and work commitments more easily. Taxation of the part-time scholarship was widely criticised.

HDR candidates across our sample claimed to be having positive experiences of academic independence. Whereas the 2009 CAPA workshop cohort raised academic independence as an area of concern, this research investigation did not find it to be an issue affecting many candidates.

Of critical interest to policy makers will be the finding that the risk of attrition seems to be most strongly linked to quality and continuity of supervision, and secondarily to collegiality more broadly. It seems that even in the face of many other institutional barriers to the production and dissemination of quality research, such as lack of resources and facilities and funding issues, the majority of HDR candidates are motivated to persevere. But when candidates have negative experiences of supervision, or to a lesser extent, collegiality with their cohort or within the department or faculty, they are more likely to express considerations of withdrawal. ...

From: The Research Education Experience: Investigating Higher Degree by Research Candidates’ Experiences in Australian Universities, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) for the Department of Industry, 7 May 2012.

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