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‘Just call me coach’: The changing world of the PhD supervisor

The apprentice-style model for doctoral training, in which a PhD candidate spends at least three years working solidly on a research project chosen and supervised by a single academic, is going out of fashion.

That was the main message conveyed by three speakers at a session on trends in doctoral training held at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin on 13 July. The title of the session was: What is the future of the PhD in the 21st century?

Maresi Nerad, director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington, told an audience of more than 100 mostly doctoral students that PhD training all over the world is changing. Many universities, according to Nerad, are adopting what is called the ‘global village approach’ to PhD training. This is where PhD trainers recognise that students will learn from a spectrum of sources and that they need to pick up skills other than knowledge of the topic of their PhD, as most will end up in careers outside academia.

Significant innovations in PhD training include candidates being supervised by more than one PhD supervisor based at different universities, sometimes in different countries, Nerad said. An alternative and more structured approach is the creation of doctoral training centres at universities. This method, pioneered in the US, is now being adopted more widely in places such as Germany and the UK. Students at these centres take elective courses in topics such as ethics, entrepreneurship and research methods, alongside their PhD research.

However, professors in countries with less formal training are also having to change their approach to PhD supervision, Nerad added. The expanding influence of what is called ‘the learner voice’ in universities also applies to PhD candidates. Supervisors, she said, are becoming mentors and advisers to PhD candidates, rather than just instructors.

The session also heard from Michael Lenardo who founded the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Biomedical Scholars Program, which is one such student-centred PhD training initiative. Funded jointly by the universities, the NIH and the Wellcome Trust, the programme has been running for more than a decade.

Students carry out four-year PhDs, supervised by two or more ‘mentors’: one in the UK and one in the US. “The dynamic,” Lenardo said, “changes when you have one student between two mentors. There is less of a hierarchy [between them] and much more coaching. The student becomes the arbiter and the focus and not the mentor”.

Lenardo added that more than 100 students have completed PhDs since the scheme began. The average completion time is 4.2 years, against a US average of seven years, and each student produces at least two publications. Participants get a budget for travel so that they can meet and form working relationships with other colleagues in their field.

The third speaker, Mary McNamara, head of the graduate research school at the Dublin Institute of Technology cautioned that, in Ireland’s experience at least, employers of PhDs place most value on content, followed by additional skills. This conclusion came from The Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy, a survey of business leaders published in 2009 by Ireland’s science policy council Forfas.

Broader skills such as understanding research methods or knowing how to commercialise a discovery are also important, she said. However, employers do not see these “as a substitute for fundamental deep knowledge of a subject”. Subject knowledge is critical to employers as it is the one thing they cannot do in-house, she said.