Flushed, Annette turnes away from her computer. She just checked the enrollments for the new courses of the graduate school. So many new PhD candidates, and they come from everywhere across the globe! The graduate school has been successful from its start and keeps growing. Just last month Annette agreed with the dean to focus their attention this year on guarding the quality and progress of current PhD projects, rather than aiming to increase the international visibility of the graduate school and attract even more potential PhDs. She has created a well balanced and attractive set of courses for all PhDs of the graduate school, but she now seems to become a victim of her own success.
How a good PhD curriculum can still miss the point
The courses for beginning PhDs are particularly problematic: the groups are bigger every round, and the backgrounds and entry-levels of participants ever more diverse.
When candidates do not get the right guidance and training at the start of their projects, the chances at delays and problems from the second PhD year onward increase significantly — Annette sees this clearly in progress reports from PhD candidates and their supervisors. An increasing number of participants from Asian cultures puts special demands on supervisors and causes its own dynamic in the graduate school’s trainings. The international origin of most PhDs sometimes inhibits candidates to attend courses, e.g. when visa expire during the course period or when candidates are abroad for field work. Annette suspects that many supervisors do not quite know how to approach the issue with their PhD candidates.
Like Annette’s, many graduate schools struggle with the quality of their PhD guidance. Supervisors, as they should, focus on what they know best: the subject matter of the discipline. But starting PhD candidates face more than just that. They have to manage and execute an extensive research project like they have never experienced before, they need to become independent, confident research professionals, and be able to communicate as experts with a wide, international network both inside and outside academia. A lot of this training falls to the graduate school.
But for what do we prepare our PhDs? A graduate school can aim at delivering a maximum of completed PhD thesis, but what of the bigger picture? What happens after PhDs graduate? Over 70% of PhDs find jobs outside the academic field. We cannot realistically expect supervisors to prepare them for that. Moreover, career paths of PhDs are highly personal and diverse. Some skills and attitudes can be trained in a group, but how do you prepare candidates for these personal paths? What is more, even during their PhD the issues they face vary greatly: what guidance do they need to overcome personal obstacles, what solutions could lead to big steps in personal growth and becoming a confident expert? How to organize an effective and supportive curriculum for all of this?
Personal guidance for every PhD
Ideally, a graduate school offers every PhD the training that she needs to take up leadership and be responsible for her own PhD project, that enables her to communicate effectively with her supervisors so they can focus their guidance on their scientific specialism, etc..
Every graduate school can offer her PhDs tailor made, personal training. Without completely overhauling existing course offerings. Without exceeding the budget unreasonably.
Three tips affordable, personal guidance for every PhD
Nowadays, graduate schools increasingly take initiative with courses and masterclasses that support their PhDs in the process of doing a PhD. In this way PhD candidates get a boost in their skills and supervisors can focus their energy and time on subject specific advice. General PhD skills, such as writing, networking, presenting and project management are essential for completing a PhD successfully. And you can learn them very well in a group setting. But often, the issue that blocks optimal personal growth lies somewhere else and is not easily solved in a group.
1. Hit the ground running
A job wel started is as good as done. PhDs know how to find advanced courses on specific subjects (e.g. writing academic English, presenting, advanced data analysis and research methods). As coordinator of a graduate school you need to make sure that every PhD at the start of her project is able to follow a course that helps her create the right framework for her research project: practically oriented on developing her research proposal and project management; welcoming to help her find her way in the organization; clarifying and making explicit mutual expectations; and providing tools for sustainable motivation.
2. Peer support
Organize and promote peer support and exchange of experiences among PhD candidates. You can establish peer groups of 4-8 PhD candidates in similar phases of their PhD but with different scientific and cultural backgrounds. Make sure the PhDs are committed to come together as a group, e.g. by making group meetings part of a “How to PhD” start-up course. As part of this How to PhD”- start-up course you could train these PhDs training in doing independent intervision over the complete course of their PhD trajectories. This way you give the PhDs a concrete, social, and professional support network, and take a burden of the shoulders of supervisors, especially when the going gets tougher half way through the PhD project. Peer intervision works wonders for prevention and early detection of problems and delays.
As reward for completing a research proposal plus a training- and supervision plan at the start of the PhD project, you can offer each PhD candidate vouchers for a couple of individual sessions for coaching or advice from a selection of experts in the field of personal growth, intercultural communication, self-confidence, etc. You could add methodological consults or a personal check on written English to the mix. Using vouchers greatly diminishes administrative hassle for all involved, while PhD candidates can easily get access to focussed assistance exactly when and where they need it.
Annette is relieved
Annette solved her difficulty by offering every PhD who starts a project with her graduate school a combination of the masterclass How to Survive your PhD followed by a Socratic Intervision Training. She notices that the start of the PhD project proceeds much more smoothly for most PhDs. Possible problems and delays are signaled earlier on. Moreover, the dean of the graduate school recently told Annette that her colleagues are glad that about the way the results of this course set-up alleviate their supervision. She is grateful for Annette’s solution. Annette is satisfied and relieved: mission accomplished.
What can you do?
Do not think immediately about extensive training programs or extensive investments in individual guidance. A smart combination of a hands-on start-up training with targeted individual guidance down the road can be very effective.
Are you curious to learn how you could organize this in your graduate school or research organization? You can always contact me.