Monday, August 20, 2012

Employability of Higher Degree Research Graduates

Ever since Plato set up The Academy in an olive grove outside Athens two thousand years ago, employers have complained that academia is not producing graduates suitable for work in the real world. Some university courses are vocational, but that is not the primary purpose of a university. If employers want staff with vocational skills, then they need to select those applicants who have vocational qualifications and and then train them on the job.

Universities aim to turn out graduates with a broad education. Some universities take the initiative, with students doing vocational training in parallel with their university studies. But all graduates will need further training in the specifics of a job. Employers should expect to invest a considerable amount in the initial and ongoing training of their graduates. Check what vocational/industry qualifications applicants already have and that they are willing to undergo further training for a career in industry.

Employers should not be fooled by claims from some educational institutions of "generic skills" and "graduate attributes". Ask to see where the skills you want are in the curriculum and how were are assessed. If the skills are not taught and tested, then they probably don't exist, except in the minds of the marketing department. If the student claims to have done teamwork and leadership exercises, then ask to see documentary evidence of this in their e-portfolio.

At the highest levels, university is about research to create new knowledge. A Research Masters, as defined in the Australian Qualifications Framework is about research and is not intended to teach vocational skills. There two other types of Masters degrees in Australia, which can include professional practice: the Coursework Masters and the Extended Masters. A Doctoral Degree is about "new knowledge", which can include professional practice, but not all do. Employers should not accept all higher degrees as being the same and look for coursework, professional practice and work relevant research topics.

In short, if you want a researcher, then hire anyone with a Masters or PHD in research, but otherwise look for graduates with vocational qualifications and work relevant research.

An Innovation in Education Showcase will be held at the ANU in Canberra, 17 to 23 September 2012. As part of this I will presenting on "A Green Computing Professional Education Course Online using eBooks", 12:30pm, 19 September 2012, in the Ethel Tory Centre."

Research Graduate Skills Project

The Australian Learning and Teaching Council sponsored a Research Graduate Skills Project which reported in 2009. This addressed the timely completion of research and work skills.

The authors reported eight key findings:

  1. The nature and extent of the ‘skills agenda’ in higher education that has been operating in Australia and the UK for more than a decade.
  2. The conventional skill categories at the HDR level, namely, those pertaining to academic and employability skills.
  3. The importance of acknowledging the skills and attributes that candidates are able to demonstrate on commencement.
  4. An analysis of conceptual models developed to explain skill development, which have been concerned primarily with undergraduate education.
  5. A view to providing a more integrated and holistic approach to skills development, in which seven dimensions of capability are formulated.
  6. Employing diagrammatic representation, three dominant approaches to capability development, namely, ‘structured’, ‘semi-structured’ and ‘unstructured’.
  7. A concept that extends existing research by advancing the notion of ‘contextualised performance’. This is designed to represent the enactment of skills in particular settings, for example, where a candidate is operating in unfamiliar or especially challenging circumstances.
  8. A number of parallel themes emerged from the case study, namely diversity, flexibility, quality and engagement.

Unfortunately some of these are not actually findings. As an example the first "finding" is the "... nature and extent of the ‘skills agenda’ in higher education ...", but the authors do not express any opinion about this agenda. The executive summary goes on to provide a useful summary of the skills agenda issue, but likewise does not come to any conclusions and does not make any recommendations.

The report proposes ‘dimensions of research graduate capability’: inquiring, analyzing, producing, communicating, teaching, managing, thinking and interacting. These are depicted as inter-related and inter-dependent. While that might be of use in a theoretical study, it is too complex for use in a real world definition of skills.

Research Graduate Skills Project Website

The Research Graduate Skills Project Website is a byproduct of the study discussed above, providing additional materials associated with the project.

The slides from a presentation to the 2009 HERDSA Conference have a useful summary of the work (more useful than the executive summary in the report).

The authors argue that the more diverse background of the candidates and demands of timely completion of higher degrees are being addressed with more structured programs. They criticize existing theoretical models as being based on undergraduate, not postgraduate courses. However, if as the report suggests, industry is asking for graduates with work relevant skills, then education based on coursework, not research, would be appropriate.

The authors suggest two skill categories: academic and employability. However, I suggest the basic dichotomy for graduate degrees is: coursework versus research. The essential issue to be addressed is if having students conduct research is a useful way to teach workplace skills.

The website also provides a database of skill development activities in higher education institution. However, it does not appear to provide a usable ontology of graduate skills.

This research is a very long way from providing practical assistance with graduate skills. An example of such practical help is the "eCurriculum for Higher Education", a software tool to assist for mapping between high level attributes, course objectives and assessment.

What are generic skills for research higher degrees?

Gilbert, Balatti, Turner and Whitehouse (2004) provide a useful overview of the issues with generic skills in research higher degrees. The authors put it very clearly:

"Given that the chief goal of doctoral and masters' research degrees is for students to make an original contribution to knowledge, it seems potentially contradictory that at the same time students should be developing a set of skills common to them all."

The authors go on to list some commonly cited skills: Leadership and communication, Project management, Collaboration and teamwork. They make the point that even academic employers seek such skills.

Gilbert, Balatti, Turner and Whitehouse go on to discuss the difficulties with agreeing a set of generic skills. However, they do not appear to address the central point that research may not be a useful way to teach these skills, nor if thesis examination an effective way to test for the skills.

What Are Generic Skills?

Hager, Holland, and Beckett (2002) describe generic skills as qualities and capacities, such as logical and analytical reasoning, problem solving
and intellectual curiosity, effective
communication skills, teamwork skills. The authors point out that some of the "skills", such as integrity and tolerance, are more attitudes than skills.

Apart from demands from employers, Hager, Holland, and Beckett point out that some of these these generic skills are also attributes looked for in adult learning and so can aid the learning. The authors also point out that some skills are interdependent, such as teamwork and communication.

Hager, Holland, and Beckett refer to federal government policy which has encouraged universities to address generic skills, most universities having responded with statements of graduate attributes by 2002.

Hager, Holland, and Beckett point to RMIT University, QUT, UTS, UNISA and CUT, making up the Australian Technology Network (ATN), as having worked on "qualitative differences in the attainment of a generic capability". I suggest this may come from the vocational and technical background of these universities, where observed measurement of skills is the norm. However, the authors don't point out the apparent contradiction in measuring supposed "generic" skills, such as team-work, in a specific context. If the skill is assessed in a specific context then they cease to be a "generic".

The ATN skills appear to be very generic, such as "a commitment to learning from every new situation they encounter and the ability to fulfil that commitment". Such a skill appears so generic as to be a of no practical value. There would be no way that a university could test for such a skill and therefore no way to attest that a student has acquired the skill.

Hager, Holland, and Beckett go on to briefly mention forms of work-based learning. Given the obvious value of this to employers, it is surprising the topic is not covered in more detail.

How Can Generic Skills be Assessed?

Kiley (2006) points out that Australian postgraduate research students are normally assessed only through a written thesis and asks how generic skills might be assessed. Unfortunately Kiley appears to accept that Australian universities do not directly assess such skills and instead opts for self assessment by the student. It seems unlikely that employers would accept self-assessment as a valid form of verification of a graduate's skills.

Student Portfolios for Graduate Attributes

Manathunga (2004) describes a process called "Research Student Virtual Portfolio" (RSVP) using student portfolios for developing and demonstrating graduate attributes.

Manathunga points to the limited use of formal pedagogical theory for doctoral education and lack of a "curriculum". In an attempt to provide some structure (without limiting research freedom), the RSVP process has the student and supervisor tailor a custom developmental plan for each student. The student can then collect evidence in their portfolio to indicate progress on the developmental areas. This include a reflective exercise by the student.

This e-portfolio approach would seem to answer many of the challenges of generic skills for research students. It provides a way for the student to plan and chart their progress, without the need for a narrow coursework structure. However, this assumes the student, and the supervisor, have the skills to undertake this developmental process. Some formal coursework is likely to be required to bootstrap the student, and the supervisor, so they have sufficient skills to undertake a self directed process.

The claims made for RSVP need to be treated with some caution, as the university where Manathunga developed the concept is seeking to commercially exploit it, with RSVP registered as a trademark.

Generic Skills in the ICT Profession

The Australian Computer Society (ACS), along with some other nation's ICT professional bodies use the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) mapping of professional skills. In 2011 the topic of generic skills was discussed at the ACS Education Faculty Board meeting. SFIA has a seven levels of responsibility and about eighty skills descriptions.

The ACS designs courses and assessment procedures which address a package of SFIA skills at one or two levels. Course and harassment design is required to allow the tracking of skills from SFIA definitions, through learning objectives, to individual assessment items. As an example of this, I designed the course "ICT Sustainability" with two learning objectives which correspond to two SFIA skills, assessed with two assignments.

The ACS also conducts a Skills Recognition process for the Australian Government to assess prospective migrants. In preparing the sustainability assessments for this process I was required to map each question asked of the applicant to a skill in SFIA.

In addition SFIA has "generic skills" defined at each revel of responsibility. Here are SFIA generic skills for enterprise architecture at Level 5:

  • Challenge range and variety of complex technical or professional work activities;
  • Influences organization, customers, suppliers, and peers within industry on contribution of specialization;
  • Work requires application of fundamental principles in a wide and often unpredictable range of contexts;
  • Maintains awareness of developments in the industry;

From: Enterprise Architecture (Elective Subject), ACS Education, 2011

These generic skills use similar terminology to those for university graduate programs. Some of these skills are specifically addressed in courses on "Business, Legal and Ethical Issues", "Business, Strategy and IT" and "New Technology Alignment". More generally a Professional Practice reflective diary, recorded in an e-portfolio, is used by the student to document their learning experience.

New Route PhD

The "New Route PhD", is a structured program for graduate students, developed by a consortium of UK universities (mostly vocationally oriented ones). The program also offers Diploma, Certificate, Masters and professional qualifications, along the way to a PHD. The program addresses the popular"generic" skills, such as communication and teamwork. But I could not see any of the details of the actual courses offered. Also this appears to be a consortium approach, like Open Universities Australia, where the individual institutions involved come together for marketing purposes, but their courses are not integrated.

Generic Graduate Attributes for Research Students an Oxymoron?

After a brief look at some of the literature on generic graduate attributes for research students, I am unable to shake off the sense that Australian universities are creating complex contradictory structures in order to avoid an obvious truth: research degrees are not a suitable form of education for most employees. A research degree provides an education in how to carry out research in a narrow specialization. The research skills may be transferable to other areas of research and some of the background to the specialization may be useful in employment. But apart from this, such an education will not be useful, outside a few research occupations. It should be noted that, a research degree would not be suitable preparation for lecturing at a university, as universities are tending to require teaching qualifications.

Rather than address employer's requirements by designing vocational coursework programs at the graduate level, some universities appear to be using marketing dressed up as research, to make research programs appear vocationally relevant, with impressive sounding "skills".

I suggest that rather than asking what generic student attributes students might obtain as a byproduct of their studies, universities need to put these at the core of programs. Teaching and testing these skills will, as some of the literature suggests, also aid student learning and research skills.

e-Portfolios to Demonstrate Generic Skills

If "generic" skills are an important part of higher degrees, then universities need to specifically train and test these skills. This does not appear a problem for coursework students, where the skills can be part of compulsory courses. However, universities appear reluctant to have any coursework, or compulsory content, in research degrees. In theory that should not be a problem, as these degrees are not intended to provide vocational skills. However, employers do not understand the distinction between coursework and research degrees and, for marketing reasons, universities do not want to educate the employers about this distinction.

The use of techniques developed for adult vocational education appear to offer a way to provide generic skills for research students, without requiring compulsory courses. With this approach, the student has a portfolio, where they place evidence of having acquired skills. Templates with standard skill sets can be provided and courses to help the students acquire the skills. At the end of their program, if these skills are mandatory, the portfolio can be submitted as part of the thesis and assessed. The employer can then examine this material when selecting employees to see which have useful skills.

However, use of ePortfolios will require staff trained in their use to help the students. Research supervisors will require extensive training and testing before they could carry out this function and they may not be the most suitable people for the task.

ps: Others Write on Research & Employability

A search of The Australian Higher Education Supplement Letters, for "research & employability" found only two documents:

  1. "Doctoral skills" by Jim Cumming from the Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods, ANU (12 March 2008) points to the value of work integrated learning and the role for industry in education.

  2. Business ideas have great value, Alec Cameron, Jill McKeough, Cameron Glesson, Lynne Hunt, 6 April 2011


Gilbert, R., Balatti, J., Turner, P., & Whitehouse, H. (2004). The generic skills debate in research higher degrees. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(4), 375-388. Retried from:

Hager, P., Holland, S., & Beckett, D. (2002) Enhancing the learning and employability of graduates: The role of generic skills. Melbourne: Business/Higher Education Round Table. Retrieved From:

Kiley, M. (2006). Can we improve doctoral student learning through assessing generic and employability skills? In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning through assessment (pp. 116-124). London: OCSLD. Retrieved from:

Manathunga, C. (2004) Developing research students' graduate attributes. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.) Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education. Proceedings of the 2004 International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Adelaide. Retrieved from:

1 comment:

Tom Worthington said...

A shortened version of my post "Employability of Higher Degree Research Graduates" appeared in The Australian Newspaper's Higher Education section, 19 September 2012, with the title "Knowledge and the 'real world'":

EVER since Plato set up The Academy in an olive grove 2000 years ago, employers have complained that academia is not producing graduates suitable for work in the real world.

Some university courses are vocational, but that is not the primary purpose of a university. If employers want staff with vocational skills then they need to select those applicants who have the right qualifications and then train them on-the-job. ...