Springboard to Success
Of all the learning experiences I’ve undertaken the PhD/doctoral one is unlike any other. I really value how it has given me a sense of endless possibilities and brought rigour and challenge to my thinking. Always pushing me to go just that one…or…two…or…ten steps further.
This is one of the reasons I have a special affinity for doctoral students and care about their development. I know the amazing career opportunities a PhD can bring and I can see talent, potential and high-skills value being created as they progress.
I’m also ever grateful to the many talented doctoral researchers I’ve worked with over the years. They helped inspire me to create Innovating Your Career and constantly challenge me to be at the top of my game.
The Adventure Continues
With this in mind you can imagine my excitement when I was invited by the University of Surrey’s Doctoral College to collaborate on a doctoral student career development study using my Innovating Your Career e-course. And it didn’t stop there…
…we were accepted onto the programme of the UKCGE’s* 4th International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Training and Education (ICDDET4 for short).
The chance to speak about Innovating Your Career and its impact at an international conference really was the cherry on the cake. Malahide, County Dublin here we come!
From the moment I arrived at the event; from those early conversations I could sense the collaborative and supportive atmosphere. People were smiling, engaged, ready to learn and share.
What united everyone there, regardless of role, organisation or experience, was our mutual mission of enabling doctoral researchers to thrive. This common ground, by no means defined us, but it most certainly united us. If you were there you cared…and it was a great place to start.
Accident or Design
The theme of the conference was structured doctoral training and its impact. To put this subject into context, we’re essentially talking about professional development for postgraduate researchers.
Its importance and significance stems from the fact that there has been a huge shift in attitudes and approaches to researcher development.
Decades ago your professional development happened because it had to or you failed. If you decided you wanted additional training or support you went and found it. But you would have probably kept it a secret.
Doing a PhD challenges you and that’s the point. Today, however, there is greater recognition that having additional developmental and learning opportunities does not take away from this; it adds to it, enhances it, and improves chances of success.
ICDDET4 and the wealth of insights shared are testament to how times have changed. Support and development of researchers during their doctoral experience has evolved enormously.
Independent thought, novelty, and being self-sufficient are still at the core of a doctorate, what has changed is investment in and support with non-subject specific aspects. Learning opportunities are prevalent and varied across universities globally. Centres of excellence, collaborations and cohorts designed to increase professional development opportunities, improve completion rates and invest in non-subject specific capabilities.
Structure is an important part of professional development as it helps provide scaffolding for learning and development.
Thanks to Dr Margaret Kiley from The Australian National State University for that great analogy shared in her engaging talk on structured doctoral programmes in Australia.
Accessible frameworks give frames of reference and context which ideally enable students to identify aspirations, check progress and identify gaps.
Designing impactful learning and professional development opportunities has its challenges, yet the greater challenge, from my observations, comes from a student’s personal commitment to the process.
Professional development is personal; career development is personal. Enabling structures and frameworks are only the beginning. Ultimately, we all have to take personal responsibility.
And it’s here we find an inbuilt quirk of the doctoral experience linked to the power dynamic between student and supervisor.
At its healthiest this is an evolving, supportive mutually respectful relationship which encourages professional development and personal choice. At its worst it can be very toxic; limiting personal choice and creating an almost master and servant like scenario.
Dr Michael Carter and Dr Peter Harries from North Carolina State University gave interesting insights into this area at ICDDET4; sharing the impact it can have together with examples of the coping strategies some students have to undertake.
Beyond Your Bubble
Supervisor shenanigans aside, doing a PhD requires focus, commitment and tenacity. Combine this with continuous scrutiny, operating at the leading edge of knowledge and constantly striving for novelty, you can easily create a very heady mix.
Stepping away from this hothouse, exploring beyond your bubble, interacting with others, all serve to relieve the tension. Fresh perspectives and alternative environments often lead to connections, ideas and inspiration far greater than you could have imagined.
ICDDET4 was a great example of this in action. Temporarily remove constraints of day-to-day responsibilities, create a friendly environment, provide an interesting platform for discussion and then let people make the magic happen.
Innovating Your Career
Early Career Energy
There’s a special energy generated at the beginning of your career which is unlike any other. After all, it is your first time in the career zone. Plus, there’s so much career information available, how do you put it into context, make it personal to you and then do something about it?
I created the Innovating Your Career e-course to help people starting their career adventure to understand and articulate their value and aspirations; find and create career opportunities; confidently communicate with others.
This is particularly relevant for doctoral students because of another quirk of the doctoral experience I have regularly observed. I call it the Value Vortex.
As people progress through a PhD their value to the world increases. Yet constantly being judged by and compared to Genius A or Genius B can have a negative impact on how they view their own value. This skewed perception can affect their wellbeing and their career choices.
Personal By Design
As I mentioned, the theme of ICDDET4 was based around the impact of structured programmes on doctoral researcher development.
e-Learning by its nature requires structure and, consequently, the Innovating Your Career e-course has it too.
Using structure enabled me to create a rich learning experience with many touch points which allows people to make the interaction personal to them. This is particularly relevant in career development as everyone’s career is unique and personal to them.
It also allowed me to create a flexible framework for career development. By laying down a clear narrative and student journey which people are able to access how and when they want.
It was great to collaborate on the doctoral student study with Dr Mike Rose from Surrey Doctoral College, and to present at ICDDET4. And I thank the cross-disciplinary doctoral students from across six universities who took part in our study for their feedback and insights.
Examples of our findings include…
….interaction with the course helped students to think more deeply about their own skills rather referencing what they have heard or think they should say. It helped them to personalise and connect with their own skills narrative.
“the course gave me time to reflect on what I’m good at and the evidence for it”
….the mix of guided self-reflection and practical tools/activities helped students identify personal career-related goals, aspirations and unexpected personal priorities. As well as helping them turn insights into action.
“instrumental in helping me move forward with future plans”
The Next Chapter Begins
I enjoyed ICDDET4 on many levels and for many reasons. I learnt a lot and I laughed even more.
Special thanks go to…
…for the cool conversations and uplifting moments.
My ICDDET4 experience has inspired me to keep on my mission to help doctoral students thrive; enabling them to set off and succeed on their personal career adventures.
I can’t wait for all the exciting times ahead 🙂
*The UK Council for Graduate Education