Community of scholars meetings
Concurrently with these changes there were PhD students saying ‘well we don’t actually get together much, we don’t know who these other people are, we don’t have much contact with the Faculty’. The faculty had always had research seminars but that wasn’t regarded as enough because seminars were always topic or visitor driven and that meant there wasn’t much opportunity for students to talk about research more generally. In particular, there was very little opportunity for students to talk about research with staff other than their supervisor, and even then supervisors tended to talk about research only in direct relation to the student’s project. In many cases, students did not know what research their supervisor was working on unless their supervisor just happened to have presented a seminar on it. Therefore, the senior staff in the faculty identified a gap: there wasn’t a community of research that included research students. Although certain research groupings were very active, there wasn’t a strong community beyond the immediate players and certainly not with students who were working on topics that did not directly connect with staff projects. What was identified was a gap between the student program and what researchers did.
Various possibilities were explored and one of the strategies adopted was what was termed ‘a community of scholars meeting’. The community of scholars started with a monthly meeting in the late afternoon or evening so that the part-timers who were at work could get to it. The idea was that it was a place where researchers could talk about doing research. At these meetings, staff and students were able to present their research and raise issues among a supportive group of insiders, as distinct from the public and often final version given in a seminar. There were also opportunities for students to plan the sessions themselves. A staff member was available to support the students and the students’ steering group, but the aim was for it to be student-managed. Involvement was voluntary and no records were kept of who attended.
Sometimes staff attended, particularly when they were specifically invited to do something, however staff involvement was a continuing problem. On occasion, more than one member of staff would be invited and there would be a discussion about an open topic, such as ‘How do you find a question to research?’. Different people would tell stories about how they grappled with this question for one of their projects. So the focus was on demystifying research, and being able to discuss the things students wanted to know about research but didn’t get told in a research course.
Student Research Conferences
Another initiative in building a strong research culture and engaging research students was the Student Research Conference. Students are encouraged to present a paper even in their first year of enrolment, and specific staff are also invited to present. A wider group of staff are encouraged to come along not just to hear the students but to contribute to the sessions by discussing the research process, acting as keynote speakers, or being discussants on panels. Participation was not mandatory for students as the intention was to make it like any conference. The approach was always that ‘if it wasn’t interesting enough for students to come along anyway then it probably wasn’t worth doing and just getting students to come along for the sake of coming along is not sufficient reason’.
The annual student conference is organised by students. A staff member is available to help, but students, particularly the full-time ones, are encouraged to do most of the organising e.g., calling for abstracts, vetting contributions, arranging rooms. This initiative has continued for over ten years and it has been adopted by the subsequent mega-Faculty, following a restructure.
Doctoral Research Plans
Part of the context of the new ‘employability agenda’ led by the federal government was that there were concerns about ‘Do doctoral students actually get jobs?’ and ‘Are they equipped to get jobs?’. The question being asked of/in universities was ‘So what are you doing in your programs to develop skills other than doing one project?’.
Whilst it was acknowledged that there were external pressures on universities to make research degree graduates more employable through diversifying their work to a broader range of activities than merely their theses, internally there was also concern in the faculty that the various activities that students undertook in conjunction with their studies were not recognised and recorded. Doctoral students often ended up with little to show other than their completed thesis.
The Faculty therefore introduced a Doctoral Research Plan. This plan was based on a structure for the three stages of a doctorate. The first stage was pre-confirmation, before the major doctoral assessment at the end of the first full-time year equivalent. The second was the post-confirmation period when the student was immersed in the agreed project, and then there was the later phase that led to completion. A range of things that students might do in these different stages was identified and listed as prompts for each stage. They included things like participating with the community of scholars or presenting papers at internal conferences but also encompassed students doing other things like going on placement somewhere or presenting papers at conferences or writing a journal paper. The idea was that students would keep records of what they did. The intention was not to generate a formal portfolio but to provide a kind of template, which had prompts of possibilities. Students populated it with the things they did.
This process subsequently transmuted into the University’s Doctoral Framework. The concept was taken up by the University Graduate School and was effectively trialled within one faculty. It is now included in the Doctoral Framework which has been progressively rolled out to all faculties.
The Doctoral Research Plan identifies needs, but it is not only what is needed for a particular doctoral project but also what is required to meet the DDOGS framework for doctoral capabilities, and whatever else the student would want to incorporate into their studies. The idea of this plan was that it was negotiated with the student and the supervisor, with the oversight of the research degree co-ordinator, because some of the things went beyond what the supervisor could organise or do. Students have a different plan for each stage of their doctoral studies but it is a rolling plan which changes over time. For instance, students prepare and negotiate a plan and at the end of six months a review is undertaken. In those six months prior to the review the plan is updated and modified. It then gets handed in to the faculty and at the end of the year submitted to the University Graduate School.
This initiative was a combination of what people saw to be good practice, the willingness of a number of individuals to devote some energy to it, and also slowly changing the regulatory framework that underpinned it. Now, supervisors are faced with the requirement to have a discussion with students about their plan within the overall doctoral framework. There continues to still be some corridor talk about how some students and their supervisors are trying to ignore it, but it is part of the change strategy that recognises that if you have a device that students own and that students drive, supervisors are brought along.
In the next section you can see some reflections on the process of implementation of change.