Time to emerge from the Dark Ages of research training

In the last week, three things have struck me that many Australian Universities and supervisors of postgraduate students need to lift their game. In some cases quite dramatically.

The Department of Innovation has just released a report it commissioned by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) which should make some people take a good hard look at what they are providing postgraduates. At the Collaborate | Innovate | 2012 conference in Adelaide last week, Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia, Peter Hoj, gave compelling views on what postgraduates had a right to expect from their supervisors. Yesterday, the Chief Scientist released his Health of Australian Science report, which points us to the need to train more postgraduates to help continue the increase in innovation in Australian businesses.

The poor experience of many postgraduates described in the CAPA report and Professor Hoj’s view that students have the right to expect world class training and opportunities illustrate a gap in our expectations and reality. In far too many cases, the rights of postgraduates are simply not being met. If Universities and academics don’t lift their game, it makes it much less likely that Australia can meet the challenges of a better trained research workforce in the future.

Too many academics remain in the dark ages of postgraduates supervision. “Throw ’em in the deep end and let them sink or swim” is a mantra for some. Some scholarship granters still think they should own a couple of generations of a scholar’s family simply because they gave them a scholarship equivalent to about half the average wage for a few years. The model of postgrad-as-an-apprentice is just plain wrong.

We aren’t talking about really complex stuff here. The CAPA survey shows that one in five fulltime postgraduates in Australian Universities did not have sole access to a desk and chair. It jumps to more than 50% when part-timers are involved.

Once the minimum requirements are met, postgraduates generally wanted “reliable, engaged and critical supervisors who mentored their students by helping them get their work published in suitable journals, encouraging them to attend conferences and present their work, and where possible, involving them in other research projects and teaching appointments in their department”. This is not rocket science (well in some physics departments, maybe it is). It isn’t a lot to ask. Peter Hoj put it “academics have no given right to obtain PhD students. They only have the right to earn it”. Absolutely.

If a University can’t provide a postgraduate with a good supervisor, a collegial environment, a desk, computer and some resources, they should not accept that student. If a supervisor can’t offer a postgraduate support, regular meetings, feedback and collegiality, they should not accept that student. The “sink or swim” mentality is ridiculous in an age where postgraduates are more mature; often have significant industry experience in the area of their studies and all of us are in a universal fight for talent.

There are some Universities working really hard to boost the experience of research students. The CAPA report indicates that research students are likely to respond positively to these moves. The Chief Scientist’s report indicates a need for more postgraduates, so those Universities should be rewarded for their efforts. The sooner, the better in my view.

References.

The Research Education Experience report is here.

The Health of Australian Science Report is here.

Professor Peacock is a Member of the Government’s Research Workforce Strategic Advisory Group. Views expressed here are his own.