Identifying and developing skills

How to communicate, how to write, how to put in an ethics application, how to ...?, how to ...? These are basic skills that many students don't have. It's always been the case, only now it's being recognised, so one has to teach these basic skills to bring everyone up to a certain level. (Experienced supervisor, Medical Sciences)

This quote from an experienced Oxford supervisor highlights doctoral students' frequent need for support to acquire a broad range of skills which enable them to develop as a researcher.

The University of Oxford expects supervisors to assist their students in identifying learning and skills training needs and sources, including broader personal and professional skills. For more information, see the Policy on Research Degrees and divisional Codes of Practice for supervision on the "New supervisors" page. Note that the University is required to report on the opportunities it provides to help research students develop these abilities.

Each Division provides online guidance to both students and supervisors concerning first identifying and then developing skills, as follows:

Identifying skills

Developing skills

Consult the web pages below for information on courses and other activities which support the development of a range of skills.

For advice on student skills development in Continuing Education, please contact the Director of Graduate Studies, Dr Christine Jackson.

 

But, you know, you start up a project, very excited, you've got a student who's clearly very bright, has got a strong performance, and yeah, we're going to do this! And then, of course, to start with nothing really happens because, you know, you realise the level that they are when they start [is] with undergraduate skills. A lot of my projects are very technical and there's a huge, huge learning curve to go up which, of course now as a supervisor, you absolutely take for granted because you've been there and it's all in your head, and you forget where they're starting from. (New supervisor, MPLS)
I can remember I went to a conference here, and one of my supervisors said, "Oh, was it useful?" and I sort of said, "Oh yes," and he said, "Who did you meet that you can work with in the future?" and I thought, "oh, I don't know...!" There were lots of lovely people, but I wasn't thinking about, you know, creating a network I suppose, which is obviously part of what you've got to do. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

These comments highlight the need for supervisors and students to consider the identification and development of skills right from the outset of the doctorate. Drawing up a written statement of students' specific training requirements early on, and reviewing these at least annually, can help to avoid the above situations.

The remainder of this section is divided in two: the first concerns identifying the student's skills training needs, the second notes useful sources and resources for skills development.

Identification

There are a number of resources for research students at Oxford to identify their training needs. Examples of tools and resources in use to identify gaps and track the development of skills include the following:

  • Medical Sciences: Record of Achievement forms
  • Humanities: Personal and Professional Development Framework for Humanities Researchers
  • Social Sciences: The Social Sciences division expects supervisors to engage in an annual skills review cycle with all students. A Training Needs Analysis (TNA) Framework is used to carry out this review, enabling all students to consider where they are with the skills listed and where they ought to be, and to receive guidance on how to fill any gaps. Students are expected to carry out a self-evaluation before the skills review meeting with their supervisor; following the meeting the outcomes are recorded in the Graduate Student System (GSS) as a plan of action. In subsequent termly review meetings they can re-visit the action plan, agree on a progress report and adapt the plan should changes be needed. Each department has created its own Training Needs Form which lists the skills seen to be essential in the specific subject areas covered. See the Politics & International Relations TNA form as an example.
  • Graduate Supervision System: Some supervisors and students may want to use the opportunity of the requirement to submit a formal GSS termly report for a reconsideration of training needs with the supervisor. (Online quick guides enable students to familiarise themselves with using GSS.)

Supervisors and students can explore early on the intended or imagined post-graduation career hopes of the student. Such a discussion can provide an initial basis for deciding which skills and experiences need more emphasis than others.

In recording the results of this joint task, it may be useful to note the following:

  • Future career prospects including non-academic
  • What skills it would be useful to develop for constructing a competitive CV
  • Training timeline
  • How skills learned can be described and demonstrated for potential employers

Consult the Careers Service to find out about the resources available there for career development.

Vitae's Developing as a researcher and Researcher Development Framework webpages may be useful for general ideas about a Training Needs Analysis (identifying areas of expertise and development needs) and advancing students' skills.

The University's Researcher Training WebLearn site relates skills training on offer to the domains of this RD framework (follow link and click on "Researcher Development").

Lastly, the development and implementation of skills at the doctoral level is not as simple as it might seem. One issue is that it is common for students at the end of their research programme to find it very difficult to identify the generic skills that they have developed, even though they can define the content knowledge and technical skills they have gained. Consequently, they are unable to define and promote them adequately to potential employers and to the broader community. See What skills can you develop during your DPhil? for a worksheet that students might find useful; it is based on what former Oxford students have named as the doctoral skills they use post-graduation, including graduates in non-academic careers.

Development

Developing skills involves both learning through doing and taking courses as this student notes:

There are many other things to Science apart from generating data ...I've done a couple of courses aimed at teaching me specific skills. Maybe that's not at all PI-like, but it's very much a part of being a PhD student. And I've been and visited a couple of collaborators' labs. I've given a couple of talks. I've been on conferences and stuff like that - all the other bits and bobs that come with having work that you can actually present. (Doctoral student, MPLS)

And investing in developing a range of skills is important regardless of future career intentions:

Originally, I was very interested in research work, and when I'applied to do a D.Phil. project, the intention was to carry on doing research work and eventually end up ...getting a lectureship position ...well, that desire is not as strong as it was, and I'm finding me more inclined towards doing other things ...so ...the fundamental concepts may not be important for the future, but ...whatever I learn throughout my D.Phil., like the way to tackle a problem, how you go about it, what needs to be done, and how to work on your own, that will obviously be skills that can be used anywhere, in whatever I do. So, that ...being more important than ...what actually the project is about. (Doctoral student, MPLS)

Each Division offers training, as mentioned above. Other starting points at Oxford for developing skills are:

  • The Skills Hub (Oxford single sign-on required) which includes links to divisional and University-wide support as well as self-study resources
  • Researcher Training. Click on the "Researcher Development" tab to access an exploration of IT and library tools, tips and techniques to support researchers (e.g. databases, referencing tools, open source operating systems, social networking, virtual research environments). It provides links to workshops, and online resources, and lists events by Division and their relationship to the Domains of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework or RDF).

For information on the development of specific skill areas, please consult the following paragraphs.

Ethics and Integrity

The Central University Research Ethics Committee (CUREC) oversees University of Oxford policy, guidance, and application forms for ethical review of research involving human participants and, thus, sets out the standards and behaviours which researchers need to adopt. Further guidance and training in ethical issues (including discussions, podcasts of events and lectures, and online, self-study Research Integrity courses) are provided by the Skills Hub.

Data Management

Good management of research data is key to the responsible conduct of research and the University provides insights and resources into how to manage data throughout a research project via its Research Data Management webpages.

The University of Edinburgh's online Mantra course is also recommended for training in responsible research data management. This course states that it is suitable for "postgraduate students and early career researchers who work with data and would like to learn more about managing their research data". The course covers data management principles and practice and it will enable participants "to draw up a data management plan and maintain it throughout the project life". Further topics covered include: organising and storing your data, security, data protection rights and access, preservation, file formats and metadata.

Teaching

The development of teaching skills should not be overlooked, as noted by this supervisor, especially if a student is interested in an academic career:

Teaching is one of the things that I think they ought to do because it requires you to make all kinds of connections ...while doing a DPhil might be very narrowing. So it's good ...in the sense that it will help you get a job ...but ...it's also good ...psychologically and morally ...and intellectually, because you end up with a broader view. Hopefully, you end up with the confidence that your thesis, in some way, slots into this much broader spectrum. (New supervisor, Humanities)

It is the University's policy that all graduate students who teach should receive appropriate training to support them in this activity. Divisional and Departmental Teaching Registers are now widely established to aid access to teaching opportunities. The Divisional links above also offer information on arrangements for teaching preparation programmes.

Health and Safety

Health and Safety training is provided for both students and supervisors by the University Safety Office. Supervisors may also wish to refer to the University's Safety in Fieldwork policy and the statement on Supervisors' Responsibilities. Particular attention should be paid to the need for students who plan to undertake fieldwork, whether in the UK or overseas and including work in 'urban' environments, to receive appropriate training.

Careers

For students aiming for a career in academia, it is important for time to be dedicated to developing a range of academic skills, whether by mentored teaching experience, attending conferences or publishing articles. The Apprise website offers a number of short career stories by academics who have now reached various stages, illustrating the importance of preparation for an academic career.

 

It is no longer enough to think only in terms of the skills that students need to complete their doctorate. Rather the focus should be the skills that they may need in their post-doctoral employment, whether that is academic or non-academic since the evidence is growing internationally that about half of doctoral graduates find employment outside the academy. This is why the National Researcher Development Statement (RDS) lists a range of skills which go beyond research to include, for instance, personal effectiveness and career management, so that research students are prepared for non-academic as well as academic careers. The intent is to encourage research students to think in terms of ongoing professional development which will carry on into future employment. To this end, the RDS covers four broad domains:

  1. Knowledge and intellectual abilities (Knowledge base; Cognitive abilities; Creativity)
  2. Personal effectiveness (Personal qualities; Self-management; Professional and career development)
  3. Research governance and organisation (Professional conduct; Research management; Finance, funding and resources)
  4. Engagement, influence and impact (Working with others; Communication and dissemination; Engagement and impact)

This list could be timely as, yet, doctoral graduates are not always well prepared for non-academic employment. Based on a review of the literature on employers' views of the skills of early career researchers, the Rugby Team (2007) listed the following skills that employers see as problem areas amongst doctoral graduates:

  • Lack of commercial awareness and difficulty making the transition from one working culture to another
  • Lack of flexibility and adaptability, with perceived problems of integration
  • Lack of interpersonal skills, team-working skills and customer orientation
  • Narrowness of interest -- overqualified and overspecialised -- and lack of self-management
  • Disproportionate expectations for salary and career progression compared to their levels of experience.

More positively, a survey of UK employers reported by the QAA emphasised the importance of the following generic skills:

  • Flexibility, adaptability and the capacity to cope with and manage change
  • Self-motivation and drive
  • Analytical ability and decision-making
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Teamworking ability and skills
  • Organisation, planning and prioritisation abilities
  • Ability to innovate
  • Leadership ability

Further, even doctoral graduates wishing an academic career cannot expect to find an academic post immediately after graduation regardless of country (Nerad et al, 2006; UK Vitae, 2007). And, for these individuals seeking academic employment, the narrowness of research training as preparation for academic careers has been noted. In fact, poor preparation for academic careers is perceived as an issue by doctoral students as well (e.g., Bieber & Worley, 2006) as well as others:

...there is... cause for concern that UK PhD study and postdoctoral work is not particularly good training for would-be academic staff, because of its near-exclusive focus on research and the lack of preparation for other academic roles including teaching... (HM Treasury, 2000: para 4.49).

While concerns are sometimes raised as to the value of taking on teaching responsibilities, a study by Feldon et al (2011) suggests that doctoral students in Science disciplines who invest time in undergraduate teaching can significantly improve their ability to generate testable hypotheses and valid research designs. The authors hypothesise that this is because teaching requires instructors to articulate to themselves their reasoning processes and clarify their mental schemas for problem-solving, which doesn't occur in other contexts such as research assistantships. Therefore, teaching can not only develop students' academic career profiles but also their research abilities.

The above text is based on:

Bieber, J. P. & Worley, L. K. (2006) Conceptualizing the academic life: Graduate students' perspectives. The Journal of Higher Education, 77(6), 1009-1035.

Crotty, R. (2004). The implementation of research degree qualities: A university-wide approach. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education (pp. 18-21). Canberra: CELTS.

Feldon, D.F. & 7 others. Graduate Students' Teaching Experiences Improve Their Methodological Research Skills. Science(19 August 2011), 333(6045), 1037-1039.

HM Treasury (2002). SET for Success. (The Roberts Report).

Kyvik, S., & Olsen, T. (2012). The relevance of doctoral training in different labour markets. Journal of Education and Work, 25(2), 205-224.

Metcalfe, J. (2004). Re-imagining outcomes for research education: A national cross-disciplinary focus on students. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education (pp. 3-8). Canberra: CELTS.

Nerad, M. (2006) Social Science PhDs: Five+ years out: a national survey of PhDs in six fields - highlights report. Seattle: University of Washington Centre for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE).

Neumann, R., & Tan, K. (2011). From PhD to initial employment: The doctorate in a knowledge economy Studies in Higher Education, 36(5), 601-614.

QAA, Getting the job you deserve, progress files for students. This document is no longer available online.

RCUK (2001) Joint Statement on Skills Training Requirements for Research Students. See the RCUK Frameworks page for information on more recent version of skills training requirements.

Rugby Team (2007) Employers' Views of Researchers' Skills.

UK Vitae Programme (2007) What do PhDs do? - Trends. Published by CRAC Ltd.
This Vitae report is no longer available online. However, see Vitae, (2013) What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates for more recent updates on the same topic.

Vitae (2011) Researcher Development Statement. CRAC Ltd.