For anyone involved in the appointment of full-time university or college staff, it has become increasingly obvious that postgraduate education has become saturated with professional practices formerly confined to later phases of an academic career. Indeed skills training has become part of the stated agenda of the UK funding bodies: a joint statement on this topic has been published by the Research Councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB).(1) This document covers a host of areas, including research environment, skills and techniques, and management, as well as communication skills, networking, teamworking, personal effectiveness, and career management. It seeks to formalise many aspects of training which were traditionally acquired through the multi-faceted mentoring relationship between supervisor and supervisee. It also alerts universities to the fact that all students should be receiving ‘appropriate and relevant preparation, training and support for their development, helping them both to complete a high-quality doctoral thesis and to develop a range of knowledge, understanding and skills necessary for their future employment’.(2) Adherence to these requirements will be viewed by universities as paramount, because compliance is linked to continued funding of doctoral students.
To its credit, the AHRB has allocated funds to institutions in order to achieve the desired results. From October 2004, universities will receive £450 per annum, for up to three years, for each doctoral award holder in the humanities; it is the responsibility of individual institutions to use this money to introduce appropriate skills training programmes.Various models are emerging, and it seems likely that institutions will not discriminate between funded and unfunded students in the provision of training.A key consideration will be the level at which such instruction is provided: some might opt for ‘one size fits all’ generic skills training for all doctoral students, regardless of their disciplines;(3) others might devolve the programme to individual faculties, logical groupings of faculties (such as humanities and social sciences), or other appropriate smaller collectives; others might allow individual departments or schools to make the necessary provision; still others might adopt a mixed diet of generic, universitywide elements, complemented by some more subjectspecific blocks.(4) There are undoubtedly scenarios in which a generic or interdisciplinary approach would yield interesting results: for example, one could imagine how networking, teamworking, and some communication skills could be enhanced through contact with others outside one’s subject area. Such elements of training must, however, be carefully handled, because the current crop of PhD students are surely busier than their predecessors, and are being required to professionalise earlier.(5) Not only are they working to finish their dissertations within the three-year period of their awards (if they are fortunate enough to get funding); but also often teaching, attending conferences, making research trips, attending meetings, and engaging in other activities entirely appropriate to their stage of career. If they believe the training to be germane and well thought out, it will be welcomed; if, however, they see it as inapplicable or poorly conceived, it may well hamper progress on their projects. If there is to be training, it must be relevant and time-efficient, and should not in any way hamper one of the most critical elements of the PhD: making a substantial, original contribution to knowledge in a specific area.
The above observations are important in providing a context for Professionalising the PhD in English – the title of the doctoral training scheme now in place at Queen’s University. The programme is not intended as a course in research training: that is embedded in the various successful MAs which the School of English runs annually,(6) and enhanced during the differentiation period of the PhD.The programme is also not intended to supersede any element of the relationship between supervisor and supervisee: the privilege granted to the doctoral student, through devoting undivided attention, directed by a subject specialist, to a specific area of inquiry, is a unique, rewarding experience. The mentoring relationship can be the fountainhead of new ideas, for which both supervisor and supervisee share an enthusiasm.The dynamics of this association involve a careful balance of tutelage, friendship, emotional support, and professional commitment; if properly managed, the results are often of benefit to both. When, however, the doctoral student seeks to professionalise – rather than to engage in scholarly activity on which the dissertation and its byproducts are based – his or her prospects can be greatly enhanced by drawing on wider experience, whether of other PhD students in English, or of full-time members of staff.
This series of developmental seminars, which make up a not-for-credit module offered across the three years (or four) of a PhD,(7) is intended as training in career development, which has as its specific remit the preparation of doctoral candidates for the job market – both within and without English studies. In order to develop a curriculum, several existing models were examined in the autumn of 2003 – all in North America, because nothing of the kind existed in the UK for English studies. The research was greatly facilitated by the results of a survey undertaken by the MLA (Modern Language Association) Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of PhDs, chaired by Professor Linda Hutcheon of the University of Toronto.(8) This body gathered evidence from English departments across Canada and the United States, in order to develop an informed view of job prospects for postgraduates and postdocs. Included in its remit was an investigation of the educational and professional value of various activities many graduate students pursue in order to enhance their credentials as job candidates.(9) A study of the report was complemented by a visit to Toronto, for discussions with Professor Hutcheon, and Professor Russell Brown, the PhD placement officer responsible for the development of a doctoral course dedicated to career development: ENG9500Y – Professional Skills.(10) The advice provided by these two senior academics was highly instructive: both believed that British candidates who come to North America in search of academic jobs are not sufficiently professional in their approach.Too much, they believe, is left to chance: British candidates are, in general, not trained in interviewing techniques; nor are their CVs and letters of application up to the perceived standard. They are not, in general, as competitive as their counterparts across the Atlantic. The current job market, however, dictates that in order to compete in both national and international arenas, UK doctoral students must view the job application process as something for which they can and must be trained.
At Queen’s, Professionalising the PhD is offered in a staged manner, across the three years of the full-time degree (or part-time equivalent). Professional acculturation begins in the first year of the degree, during which students are offered two sessions.The first is an introductory seminar, in which these new inductees are told about the structure of the programme, and are given a chronological summary of the times at which it is appropriate to engage in selected professional activities.They are invited to start shaping their careers by considering, in small group discussion, a series of questions, including why they want to do PhDs, what training they are getting, how they will get to where they want to go, and what they need in terms of experience, tools, and contacts. They are also presented with statistics concerningcareer destinations for those who have already completed PhDs at Queen’s (Fig. 1), where just over 20 per cent of recent graduates have become full-time academics. It is emphasised that they should start putting together their CVs from the outset, and that they should begin thinking about a second-year undergraduate course in which they might participate as a teaching assistant, in their second year. It is also, however, emphasised that their priority must be the structuring and writing of their theses, with a view to differentiation at the end of the first year.The second session tells first-year PhDs about funding opportunities – both internal and external. Such information is important for planning research trips which students may wish to undertake, and conferences which they might like to attend.
Support for the module is offered by the author of this article (who acts as convenor). Registered students have access to online materials via a virtual learning environment, including handouts from seminars and links to useful websites.They also have access to an open online discussion forum, in which they can ask questions of each other, make observations, or discuss relevant issues with the leader of an individual seminar.Work on a PhD can sometimes be quite solitary; this facility allows students to become part of a community of like-minded individuals, who share concerns about their work, job prospects, and other relevant issues. In the second year of the PhD, the number of seminars increases to five. Those who have differentiated undergo training as teaching assistants, so that they can participate in the large period-based survey modules which second-year undergraduates choose.(11) They receive training in small group teaching, marking, and feedback; they are also told what is expected of them professionally as members of a module team. Their teaching is monitored through a mentoring process, which includes class observation by a full-time member of staff. This carefully organised system offers support in case of difficulty, provides first-time teachers with feedback on their pedagogical practice, and encourages the development of classroom confidence. To complement instruction in pedagogy, these doctoral students receive training in presentation skills, thus building confidence and developing powers of communication; this element has as its goal participation in the School’s research seminar, in which postgraduates are offered an opportunity to present 20-minute papers to interested members of the School, on work connected with the thesis topics.
It is clear that development of communication skills and participation in a research seminar are linked to an important professional activity: going to a conference and speaking about one’s work. Students are explicitly prepared for this experience in a special session on ‘conference culture’, in which they are given pointers about how to propose and present a paper, and are taught the conventions of an oral text.They are encouraged to use the conference as a way of raising their individual profiles, and as a springboard for future publications. The delicate issue of networking is also addressed. The session is also an appropriate opportunity to plant in their minds the idea of running a conference themselves, thus further enhancing their organisational skills. Conference activity forms an important part of the career of any academic; for postgraduates it is an important way of participating in academic debate, and ‘showcasing’ their own work.
While conferences might feature more prominently on the CVs of doctoral students than of full-time academics, a strong record of publication is something for which everyone professionally involved in English studies must strive.To this end, Professionalising the PhD includes a session on research culture and strategy, and another on publication. In the first one, the nature of scholarship is examined, and students are given practical information on how to develop a research profile. They are also given information on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and why employers are particularly interested in a candidate’s potential to contribute to a department’s submission at a high level. In the second session, students learn about the characteristics of work pitched at a scholarly community, and examine, with practical examples, the identifying features of a scholarly article, essay, and book review. They also learn about the process of getting an item accepted for publication. An important milestone in one’s early publication career is the transforming of the thesis into a monograph; this topic, like all others, is informed by the personal experience of the academics leading the session. Students are also encouraged to think about having a forward plan for research – a crucial area investigated in job interviews.
By the end of the second year of the programme it can be seen how the various elements from the seminars fit together: the postgraduates are taught to make practical progress in a number of key areas of academic endeavour, with a view to having a significant body of experience by the time they complete their degrees. Introducing this information in the second year also helps to focus students’ minds on the key question of whether or not to pursue an academic career.While most PhD students believe that they will get academic jobs, this is not borne out in reality.This fact must be presented to doctoral students early on, so that they realise that they have choice and flexibility in determining an eventual occupation; it also teaches them that things might not turn out the way the had imagined.
In the third year of Professionalising the PhD the number of sessions increases to eight; at this point the students must start to think seriously about employment prospects. Two sessions on ‘The First Job’ are offered.The first considers the duties, expectations, and limitations of an academic career; it also gives students an idea of what salary to expect, both within the UK system (for which there are still national scales), and in other countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia (for which general trends may be described). They are also asked to consider carefully the different shapes that career paths – whether academic or non-academic – may take.The second session offers advice about where to look for jobs, how to write an effective letter of application, and how to approach the criteria employed by selectors. For these sessions it is beneficial to draw on the widest possible experience: established academics and those new to the job have different – yet complementary – views on the process.Younger academics might just have come through the job search, while senior academics will have had experience of interviewing panels. It is also beneficial to draw on the experience of individuals who have applied for, or have knowledge of, jobs in differentnational contexts: the procedures, criteria, and expectations of selection panels are markedly different in the UK and Ireland, when compared to, for example, continental Europe, North America, the Antipodes, or the Middle East and Far East.
By the third year of the PhD, the students’ CVs should feature details which indicate that they have ‘professionalised’ in appropriate ways; the information should also be organised so as to be clear and easily evaluated by members of a selection panel, who sometimes scan over one hundred CVs in an attempt to shortlist for a position. To ensure that the documents achieve this end, the programme offers a workshop on preparation and presentation of CVs. Many students are initially hesitant to share this information with their peers or the leaders of the session; if, however, established academics are willing to share their own CVs, students will feel much more at ease about disclosing their own details. It is also helpful if students are encouraged to resubmit their CVs for further scrutiny after appropriate alterations.
Something else students need to know about is designing a course, because this is often one of the first things they will be asked to do when hired. If (as at Queen’s) there is no possibility for PhD students to plan and deliver their own courses,(13) they must still be familiar with the mechanics of designing a set of their own classes when they come to job interviews.This session introduces students to some of the basic elements (description, learning outcomes, set texts, weekly schedule, and assessment), and points them towards such key standards as the English benchmarking statement.(14) Students are also encouraged to investigate the results of University Subject Review15 as a way of gleaning more information about a particular English department in the UK. With this information, complemented by published course materials, job candidates should be able to investigate the teaching that goes on at a given university, and will thus be able to think about their own particular contributions as newly appointed academics.
Whether or not these postgraduates pursue academic careers, they will almost certainly be required to undergo an interview in order to obtain gainful employment. It is therefore crucial to present them with opportunities to hone their skills in this area. By this stage of the programme they will have had experience of delivering their material in a public forum, and will have made an attempt to develop their presentation skills; they should also have had other opportunities to defend their ideas, such as at differentiation, or if they have completed their PhDs, at the viva.The two sessions on job interviews are designed to prepare candidates as fully as possible for what can be a daunting experience. In the first, information is provided on the composition of job panels and the kinds of questions that are likely to be asked. Strategies may then be developed for providing answers to those questions. In the second session individuals are put through mock interviews, which are recorded onto DVD and then analysed; much can be revealed about the nature of the responses, body language, and other personal factors on which feedback may be provided. This session can have even greater impact if it precedes an actual job interview: questions may be tailored to suit the particular situation. Once again the collective experience of new and established academics may be combined to offer a candidate different kinds of feedback, with a view to improving performance.
The final two sessions of the programme address the ‘What if…’ scenario.They are addressed to individuals who, either by choice or circumstances, are unable to pursue an academic career. These sessions can be tailored to reflect employment patterns for graduates of a particular institution. Publishing is, perhaps, an obvious alternative in which the skills gained as a PhD student are to some extend transferable; there are, of course, others. Above all, it is important to alert PhD students to a range of possibilities, so that new opportunities can be created, and so that the pursuit of a non-academic career is never seen as failure.
Professionalising the PhD operated as a pilot project in 2003-4, with funding for travel and equipment kindly provided by the English Subject Centre.The response to the seminars, from both students and staff, was overwhelmingly positive.The School of English committed all full-time staff to the sessions; this sharing of responsibility – particularly between new and established staff – allowed for different experiences to feed into the programme. Because this was the first year of operation, there was no firm separation into the three levels proposed in the schedule (Fig 2): students in the final year of their degree could clearly benefit from information intended for their juniors. Because theprogramme was – and intends to remain – optional, participation depended on the students’ own perceived level of preparedness, as well as time commitments and other factors.There was a committed group who attended almost everything; but there were also those who came only once or twice. It is also clear that the sessions are of greatest benefit to doctoral students of English if they are facilitated by academics in their subject area. Many of the topics covered have particular nuances associated with English studies; if they were addressed in a generic context, they would lose their viability, and indeed their interest for our own students. The School of English is committed to sustaining this programme in the future; it has become an established part of the postgraduate curriculum in English at Queen’s, and has been highlighted in promotional material and academic plans; it also occupies a central position in the new ‘Departmental Statement on Research Training Provision’ that is being submitted to the AHRB with every application for doctoral funding. This professionalising initiative has appeared at a crucial juncture, when, in addition to the thesis that makes an original contribution to scholarly debate, the need for properly conceived professional training is essential, in a job market where the reliable, systematic acquisition of relevant skills has distinct advantages in the hiring process and beyond. If other English departments – and indeed units in other subject areas – are prepared to devote expertise and resources to the professionalising of PhDs, then all graduates will benefit, and will make enhanced contributions in their chosen pursuits.
|Stage of PhD||Activity|
|Year 1||Introductory seminar
• For all new doctoral students, which maps out their various activities over their three years, and introduces them to the elements of this training programme
• Patterns of employment following completion of the PhD in English
• Overview of the various dimensions of being a member of a professional community
• Funding opportunities
• Seminar on Queen’s University Belfast and external funding (for travel to conferences, research trips, etc)
|Year 2||Teacher Assistant training course
for those who have differentiated and are to become TAs in the School
• Presentation skills
• Confidence building
• Powers of communication Students will have as their goal participation in the School’s research seminar in their second year.
• How to propose and present a paper
• Conventions of an oral text
• How to run a conference; how to get funding; how to edit proceedings and find a publisher
• Networking; Using the conference to raise individual profile and serve as springboard for publications
|Research culture & strategy
• The nature of scholarship
• Development of an individual research profile
• Information. on the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise)
• How to prepare and submit essays: the process and what to expect; Characteristics of work pitched at the scholarly community
• Publication of PhD thesis
• Moving from the conference presentation to the essay
• Moving beyond the PhD; forward planning of research
• What is a refereed journal and why does it matter?
• Submitting to journal vs. edited collection; Book reviews;‘Notes’ and short articles; Reference entries
|Year 3+||The first job I
• Duties, expectations & limitations; Salary scales & career prospects
• Consideration of different shapes that career paths may take
The first job II
• Where to look; How to apply; How to write a letter of application
• Analysing selection criteria of selectors
|Preparing a CV
Workshop on preparation and presentation of students’ own CVs
|Teaching & learning development
• Course design, delivery and evaluation
• Quality assessment/assurance (QAA)
|Job interview I
• Interview techniques
|Job interview II
• Mock interviews
|Non-academic jobs I
• Publishing and the media as professions; Routes into the publishing and media communities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere
• Nature of publishing and media jobs today
|Non-academic jobs II
• Non-academic jobs outside of the academy other than publishing: what they are and how to search for them
• Contact with careers service
• Job fairs
- Joint Statement on Skills Training for Research Students (http://www.ahrb.ac.uk/ahrb/website/images/4_93335.doc).
- The AHRB’s framework of research training requirements (http://www.ahrb.ac.uk/ahrb/website/images/4_93944.doc).
- In this scenario it will be interesting to see how the institution reassures the AHRB that it is sensitive requirements of the arts and humanities.
- The AHRB has also made £700,000 of funding available in 2004-5 for collaborative research training at least two institutions; see http://www.ahrb.ac.uk/ahrb/website/images/4_93825.pdf.
- See Gerald Graff, ‘Two Cheers for Professionalizing Graduate Students’, PMLA 115 (2000), 1192-93.
- See the description of the Queen’s MA ‘Research Methods’ modules for English: http://www.qub.ac.uk/en/ teaching/postgraduate/modernma.htm#CompModules.
- Or the part-time equivalent.
- The Committee also assessed the growing pressure on the research productivity, the effectiveness of teaching experiences of postgraduate students and postdocs, and judged whether or not current practices were desirable.
- This course is taken in the third year of the PhD in Toronto. It should be noted that North American PhD programmes are structured differently to those offered in the UK: they are designed to be completed in a minimum of four years. During the first two years, in addition to working on the thesis, students are required to complete coursework, departmental examinations, an additional language requirement, and training in bibliography.
- The second-year undergraduate programme in English offers modules from Medieval to the twentieth century. To ensure exploration of this range, both Single honours and Major honours students are required to take at least one module in stage 2 that examines literature pre-1660 (Discovering the Earliest Writings in English; Late Medieval Literature; or Renaissance Literature 1580-1660). In addition, Single honours students are required to take at least one module that examines literature post-1660 (Eighteenth-century and Romantic Literature; Victorianism to Modernism 1830-1930; Introduction to American Writing; or Irish Literature). Students can develop the study of English language introduced in Stage 1 through modules in Patterns of Spoken English; The English Language From Text to Context; and History of English. It is believed that doctoral students working as teaching assistants are, in terms of developing in their own specialist research areas, best able to contribute to such ‘survey’ modules.
- For a survey of the criteria and expectations of American 2000-2001) see Walter Broughton and William Conlogue, Modern Language Association, 2001), 39-51.
- At Queen’s the issues involved include quality control, year-to-year continuity, and budgetary constraints.
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