Monday, August 20, 2012

Work Integrated Research

The selection of candidates for university doctoral programs is a complex and expensive process. Universities are now using web advertising to attract students and this would be an interesting area for research. In addition, modern recruiting practices of business and government might be applied to research students.

At the Australian National University (ANU) the "Selection of candidates: ANU Information" includes:

  1. ANU information for potential research students
  2. Student Administration Forms
  3. Enrolment - instructions for domestic and international students.
  4. Unit load
  5. Scholarship information
  6. Graduate research scholarship holders

Also college specific information is provided for two of the colleges. This material could be improved by prefixing it with potential careers from each program. Also the availability of scholarships could be placed more prominently. A full list of ANU colleges could be added.

Like many university websites, the ANU information for potential research students suffers from an overly complex design. As an example, the first information which is actually for potential research students is on the 35th link on the page, under the heading "Research Students" (which itself is not a link). This material could be revised, to highlight the important information and reduce the number of unimportant links.

Clicking on "Prospective Research Students" produces the message "This page has been moved to ...". This will not give the potential student a good impression of the institution. The redirection should be removed.

The ANU Graduate research page passed a W3C HTML Validation Check, and Taw Automated Accessibility Test, but but scored only 30 out of 100 on the W3C mobile OK Checker. Changes to the page design, as suggested by the W3C tool, will improve access for those using mobile devices and slow Internet connections on older equipment in developing countries.

The description of higher degrees emphasizes research:

"... unlike undergraduate and graduate coursework degrees. They typically have no, or very little, structured coursework, very few classes and the ultimate objective is to write a thesis or other significant work that significantly contributes to the body of knowledge in the relevant field of research."

This is likely to discourage applicants, especially as the literature indicates that research degrees need more structure. Also it is pointed out later on the same web page that there are professional degrees, with coursework available, but the reader may be put off the institution before reading that far. Better would be to introduce higher degrees in general, pointing out they can have different mixes of coursework and research, to suit the student's individual requirements and which all provide a structure to guide the student.

The ANU also has an interactive "Application Manager", to help guide applicants through the very complex application process. The form asks for a "Field of Research/Discipline" and a brief description of the area of research and a one page research proposal. Also requested is a list of published and unpublished written work, Academic Prizes, Awards. The ANU Staff consulted and proposed supervisor are also requested. English Language Test results are required for ESL students.

Colleges supplement the central university application process with their own materials, such as the College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS), "Self assessment" guide and "Pre-application process". This has a flowchart to help the process, but which lacks an alternative text description. The pre application process has a expression of interest form, as a Microsoft Word document. This asks for "research interests" and it is not clear how this relates to the "area of research " asked for on the ANU form. The form asks the applicant to select one or more Research Groups, academic qualifications, a CV and three referees. Two of the referees have to be academic, which would exclude most potential applicants.

Specific readings

Beasley (1998) responds to the "West Review Into Higher Education Funding" (West, 1998). That review recommended "student centered funding", with students, rather than universities negotiating the funding with government agencies. Beasley comments that academics are alienated by the "New Agenda in Higher Education" without explaining what that is. The topic of funding is perennial, with Professor Fred Hilmer, Vice Chancellor UNSW and Chair of the Group of Eight Universities, calling for fee deregulation in his Press Club Address recently

Beasley criticizes the use of market forces to determine university courses. But from the perspective of 2012, it is difficult to see what the alternative would be: should universities staff courses, even where there are no students who want to enroll in them?

Beasley then criticizes the West Review's use of the term ‘excellence’ as being elitist. Being part of a university would seem to be, by definition, part of an elite and I was unable to understand the argument.

Beasley appears to have been trying to be ironic in listing what a market driven approach would force the the supervisor to do, including avoiding difficult students, not providing them extra time for overdue work, not helping other supervisor's students, not providing personal counseling and selecting projects for the students relevant to the supervisor. However, this would seem to be reasonable and responsible supervision. The supervisor should not go beyond their designated role, by trying to act as a financial or physiological councilor for the student. Also it is not in the interests of the student for the supervisor to give them excessive assistance with their project, or repeated extensions of time, as the student needs to learn to do their own work.

The HEFCE 2005 report discusses completion rates for UK doctorate degrees by research started in 1996-97. Interestingly the report appears to equate the quality of supervision with completion rates of the students. That is, the more students who complete and the quicker they do so, the higher quality the supervision is considered to be.

Of more interest is an update to the HEFCE 2005 report, published in 2007 with data added from 2003 to 2006 (DERA, 2007). This showed 76% of full-time and 48% of part time PhD students who started in 1996-97 completed within 10 years. However, what was not clear was why 10 years was used as the period for comparison, given that a doctorate is supposed to be a three year full time program.

Also the study appears to only use competition and length of time for completion as measures of quality. This brings out appears a fundamental flaw in the design of research doctorate programs: they offer no progressive recognition. For a student who is having difficulties with the doctorate, the choices are to persevere, quit or be thrown out. It would make sense to offer the student who was unable to complete the research doctorate an alternative, such as a coursework degree.

Lovitts and Nelson (2000) cite a long-term attrition rate for PHD students of 50%. Presumably this is for the USA (where the paper was published). It is consistent with the UK ten year competition rates of 48%/76% part/full -time (DERA, 2007).

Lovitts and Nelson suggest attrition of student numbers is part of the culture of US graduate schools.

Wright and Cochrane (2000) looked at completion rates for postgraduate research students in the 1990s at the University of Birmingham. They found the most significant factor for completion was science versus arts/humanities students, with about 10% more science students completing. They speculate this is due to science students doing more group work and getting more supervision.

It would be interesting to consider how to provide group work and more supervision for arts/humanities students and what change this would make to the culture of the disciplines. One way might be to provide a separate university-wide, or discipline-wide, on-line service. The students would work individually with their supervisor and, as a separate activity, work in on-line groups.

Wright and Cochrane did not find differences due to gender or age. But students with a better first degree, research council funding and international students did better.

Interestingly, part-time students did better than full time, with Wright and Cochrane speculating this is due to greater maturity. I notice that my ACS students, who are required to have work experience, have less difficulty with postgraduate studies than my ANU students, who tend to be straight from undergraduate studies.

The paper also provides a good overview of issues with completion rates and measures undertaken in the UK.

Role for Part Time Research

The ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science discourages part time research:

The Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is typically eighteen months to two years full-time and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is typically three to four years full-time. There is a possibility that study may be approved on a part-time basis in which case the duration is doubled. This is not common, and is not encouraged.

While the literature indicates part time students are less successful than full time ones, this is for traditional part time programs. A program of work integrated research (similar in approach to "work integrated learning") would fit well with the ANU's close ties with government and industry.

Additional References:

Higher Education Funding Council for England, corp creator. PhD research degrees: update : entry and completion. [ Issues paper (Higher Education Funding Council for England) ; 2007/28 ] Retrieved from:

West, R 1998, Learning for life: review of higher education financing and policy: final report, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra. Retrieved from:

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