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The teaching landscape of higher education

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dr Inger Mewburn is Director of Research Training at the Australian National University in Canberra, and editor of The Thesis Whisperer, a blog dedicated to research practice and helping PhD students. She shares her insights into the world of higher education, PhDs, and academic research and teaching.


Can you give an introduction to your role as director of research training?

I design and transform student programs for all the PhD students at Australian National University. I do research on research; which means I research student experience to form various research programs, and I then evaluate and teach these programs. I also run the Three Minute Thesis, which is an international competition for research students to showcase their research. Students must explain their research, and it’s value with only one powerpoint slide. We’re a very decentralised university. So part of my role is to identify when there’s an efficiency imbalance within the student’s research strategy and process, and help the students learn how to research better and more effectively.


Do you think that the university experience caters to students’ different needs like those on an academic path compared to those who attend to get a vocation?

60% of PhD students now go outside of academics when they finish their degree. This number is increasing all the time because the actual number of academic positions on offer are shrinking. In this way, PhD students are really not dissimilar to undergraduate or other postgraduate students, in their aspirations to move quickly into the workforce and become employable. The other issue is that awareness in the greater community about what a PhD is and what PhD students can do is quite weak - so making those connections is difficult.

The PhD as a degree program only started in Australia in the 1950’s. It’s not as old as people think, but it was designed to be for training academics and it remains that, and so there are many add ons and customisations that have developed over the years. These additions were not made systematically, but more as a response to the diversity of people coming into the degree as it's expanded.

The good thing about a PhD is that it’s quite flexible, because it’s just three years around the basis of a topic. Because of this people are starting to bolt on course work, which means the kind of work that I do now as a research trainer really wasn’t common before 2001.

As the PhD is becoming more common nowadays, it also lines up with the workforce in some areas. The PhD used to be just academic work, but nowadays in disciplines like architecture students not only research and write about architecture, but they also design buildings - and both of these activities are part of their PhD.

The actual problem is in employers’ acceptance of the PhD. There’s still some ’egg head' framing of it - somehow PhD students are too specialised, speak an obscure language, are not good with people, and a lot of employers don’t realise often that PhD students have the skills they’re looking for.

Many people don't understand there's transferable skills that come with a PhD.


Do you think universities do enough to equip and prepare students for what they want to achieve after university such as employability?

Yes I think they do - the question is do the students take it up!

We have consistent student enrollments, with over 2,000 PhD students today. We run up to 80 events a year, which are costly to produce, but if I look into how many people come to one of those very intensive and compulsory course research programs, it will be about 60% - and that’s a good turn out rate.

I don’t think it’s a sense of entitlement that drives this behaviour. I think perhaps it’s the nature of the study and the structure of the PhD. I know when I was a PhD student, I got engrossed in my study and wouldn’t go to these programs, even though I was even more aware than most students of the reasons why I should. A certain type of student attends these programs more than others - for us it’s international female students. Interestingly they are also the most resilient students. 92% complete their PhD, while local male science students graduate from their PhD’s at about 77%.


Why do you think universities experience such high drop off rates from their initial numbers? I understand that this can be more related to undergrads, potentially.

Yes, PhD has a high attrition rate. We do pretty well at ANU compared to the rest of the sector, although I know that there’s a high attrition rate in first year. There’s two types of attrition- there’s good attrition and there’s bad attrition. Good attrition is early. The person starts and recognises that the program is not for them. Bad attrition is late: it costs more, means lots of missed opportunities for the student, and a lot of investment by everyone that goes nowhere.

The problem with PhD attrition is it tends to happen late and I think in some cases that’s because - particularly in the sciences - there’s no clear path outside. People do get to the end of their masters degree, and go: “Well, I want to get a job; I’ll do a PhD.” It’s a graceful way of holding back from entering the workforce. So I think it’s quite different from first year undergraduates, and there are very different things going on at different stages, as well as different disciplines. Some think that the attrition problem is the individual students and their lack of attention, and lack of willingness to study. Students too, tend to think they are at fault for the problems, when these problems are actually so common you have to question if it’s the individual, or the system that produces them. 

In this way, social media is the hero here. It’s a powerful medium, as its very nature doesn’t allow pluralistic ignorance to exist. I mean, if you have #phdchat (a kind of constant PhD party line on Twitter) you see that everyone is talking about and experiencing similar things. It kind of normalises it, but it doesn’t make it cool and it doesn’t make it okay that there’s bullying, and other things like this. But at the very least you know you’re not alone and that other people are experiencing the same things.

Even though 70% of PhD students who leave don’t tell us why, those that do tell us usually attribute it to financial concerns. One of the reasons PhD students have such a high attrition rate is that they start later in life, and by this time have more financial obligations, and bigger priorities such as families and mortgages. Many of them also take a long time to finish the degree as well, so they are also paying an opportunity cost as they aren’t earning much money.


You straddle two different worlds, the academic load of research within higher education, and being an influential voice on social media. How do you think platforms like Twitter and blogging changed your perspective of academia? Do you think that it has had any effect on it?

I don’t actually think they are different worlds, instead I think they’re interconnected. There’s a mainstream academic practice, such as standard publishing journals, and then there’s what Bonnie Stewart calls the ‘non mainstream’ academic practice; there’s plenty of academics on Twitter talking academia. It provides different spaces to interact with similar people.

One thing that I’ve learned is that I thought the way that I was thinking about academia was unique, and it clearly isn’t. Social media has really connected me with many like-minded people, as well as those with other different ideas, which really spans my perception of what an academic can be and who they are.

Before I utilised these kinds of connections, I blamed myself for my repeated failure to enter the academic industry, and I think there are many people who encounter a similar struggle. I think that if I had been connected the way that I am now, I would have seen that I was normal and that’s just how it is. And there’s so much, from my experience from the comments shared in my blog for instance, that often talk about the weird emotions experienced.

Barbara Lovitt's has a book called The Ivory Tower which is about attrition in graduate studies in America, and she said one of the reasons that students leave is pluralistic ignorance. This is when you suffer from a whole lot of emotions, attributing your failure to yourself and your own flaws and sitting in silence. I also see a lot of mental health problems in academics. I’ve dealt with a lot of stress and I do spend a lot of time comforting people.

I know that not all academic supervisors feel this way though, in thinking that social media and academic research are connected. For example, before the internet, supervisors really were like Google, as students had no other point of reference to go to other than books. The new structure of information sourcing really questions their authority, and some supervisors are still struggling to deal with these changes. They are used to being praised, and now they’ve got to compete with social media and blogs, while some other lecturers still simply think they’re the end point; they don’t trust online sources.


In your opinion, is there enough emphasis being placed on education training for Higher Education academics?

When I look back to my job in 1999, it was different. No one really taught us teaching - you were an apprentice to another academic; you wrote a thesis and that was it - it was an unquestioned kind of practice. Even the idea that supervision of a student constitutes as teaching is relatively recent. The idea of transferrable skills in this context is only 15 years old, and therefore the processes and structure are changing a lot. I think there’s a lot of good will overall towards these changes though.

The need for highly skilled workers is increasing all the time and universities have recognised that the workforce is changing, so more practical disciplines have entered the PhD landscape. Because of this, it has broadened the scope which one can do their PhD. Back in the 90’s you wouldn’t have done a PhD in something like architecture, nursing, or engineering, but now it’s normalised.


What are some recent digital tools or trends in research that you’re personally excited about?

digital badge is an online representation of a skill you’ve earned, and I think they can really disrupt universities in a big way, but that will take some time. This non-traditional method of learning has the power to disrupt the learning structure of universities, because it allows people to display their credentials and achievements online, as well as collate them from the different areas of life, both professional and personal. So with a digital badge, it is easier for people to build skills, to get recognition for the things they learn, and increase their knowledge in an unstructured and inexpensive way, as compared to a university degree.

I’m currently doing research on teaching machines how to do things that I would normally do. I find that terribly exciting. The project that I’m doing now is looking at job advertisements in job databases, and teaching machines to look for jobs that look like they should be advertising for candidates with a PhD qualification; essentially deep learning. It takes what’s normally really time consuming, labour intensive, hand coding of text, and simplifies it. By teaching the machine we can get millions of samples. Then what I can do is teach the machine a target; it will crawl through databases and then suggest what degree the program should put on it; undergraduate, graduate, post graduate, PhD.

Humans can read a job and can kind of recognise subtleties in the text, but we couldn’t ever tell the machine exactly what it is that we see in those texts. However, this is a process by which we can train the machine to speak in a way that you can see it. The way that humans see things, and evaluate and analyse them can be codified, so I guess that I will be a part of that in the next couple of years.


What do you think will be the biggest topics or issues that our education sector will deal with in the next two or three years? Are there any trends you foresee?

The PhD for local students is the last bastion of free education - I didn’t pay for my PhD. And in the latest deregulation that was put up for the Senate, they want to introduce a yearly fee. So this freedom may well disappear, as there’s not much outcry about these proposed fees.

Deregulation. There are already some serious implications with this issue, as we’ve got declining domestic enrolment in PhD, but I think it’s going to get worse. So that’s the biggest thing that we have to negotiate.

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