By Susan Carter, Claire Aitchison and Cally Guerin

We three editors of the DoctoralWriting SIG had the re-energising experience of attending IDERN at Hiroshima University in Japan, 15-17 September, 2018.  IDERN is a loose group of people who come together every two to three years to discuss trends in doctoral research. The business of meetings is steered by a committee that organises key sessions including an introduction from the hosting country and followed thereafter by a series of provocations to stimulate discussion groups. This year the meeting was beautifully hosted by Machi Sato (Hiroshima University) and her team.

We learned about doctoral education in Japan from Professors Yohsuke Yamamoto and Shinichi Kobayashi, who described successful Japanese doctoral programs but nonetheless identified a need for reform, and for international collaboration. In keeping with global trends, the academic working environment in Japan has become more casualised and destabilised. In addition, the average age of doctoral students is increasing with a decline of doctoral entry rates straight from Masters programs. Other shifts include:

  • More systematic doctoral education
  • Transferrable skills training
  • Smoother degree granting processes
  • Systematic capacity building for supervisors
  • Quality assurance
  • Four common career paths: researchers; highly-skilled professional; professors; high level expert managing innovation

With more graduates than jobs available, leading educationalists in Japan feel that doctoral education should not scale down, but rather consider reform, with more quality assurance and supervision of diverse students.

The first of three panel sessions consisted of journal editors describing their perceptions about changes in the field of doctoral research based on what they saw being submitted for publication. Gina Wisker, editor of Innovations in Education and Teaching International, sensed a growing interest in research postgraduate careers, doctoral writing, supervisory relationship, mental health in doctoral education, and gender. Gina noted that there was now a considerable literature on the doctoral experience which authors needed to be aware of. Karri Holley, editor of Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, also noted that doctoral education is now an established area of research, albeit with some national-specific issues. Supported by other panel members, Karri declared that it is crucial to have editors and reviewers open to multiple methods, frameworks, and crucial for authors to acknowledge nuance, difference, where the story starts and how to tell it. Karri suggested that the pressure to publish means that some submissions are less well polished, resulting in longer times to publication due to extended feedback and review processes. Barbara Grant, a former editor of Higher Education and Research Development, identified an increase in publications on evaluations of doctoral education interventions (often the author’s own), attempts to theorise the ‘knowledge’ of the doctorate, student experience, indigenous and international students, and some on policy analysis. She mentioned that there is not yet much research published on age, class or gender in the doctoral education field, and little relating to national geopolitics.

Another session, presented by Anthony Paré, Cecile Badenhorst and Claire Aitchison, questioned the thesis as ‘the capstone project.’ Claire Aitchison (University of South Australia) provocatively asked how we might reconsider the doctorate and its examination from the perspective of curriculum design where aims, objectives and graduate attributes would align with student activities and outputs. Cecile Badenhorst (Memorial University) scoped out resistances to changing the traditional thesis, and pointed out that institutional rhetoric regarding desire for creativity does not necessarily play out in action. In relationship to the dominance of the traditional thesis, Anthony Paré (University of British Columbia) asked whether we might still gain the advantages of writing a doctoral thesis if other and emerging forms of research writing (such as grey material, grant applications, book reviews and social media) are valued and supported. He pointed out that genres like academic blogs are gaining kudos and respect. The forum generated considerable discussion about change and stability in doctoral examination.

The third panel discussion centred on how research into the doctorate can be used to influence policy and practice in higher education. Julie Posselt (University of Southern California), Simon Barrie (Western Sydney University) and Jisun Jung (University of Hong Kong) provided a fascinating comparison of country challenges and responses. Despite the different contexts within which each presenter was operating, there were common threads concerning the relationship between global influences and local policies (such as the ‘impact’ agenda). For example, a focus on admission practices and processes provided a powerful example of how research can change policy, in turn impacting equity and local work practices.

The scheduled panel sessions raised key questions about the kind of research that is required in the field. Over the two days, many conversations and debates ensued, both in structured group discussions and more informally during meal breaks. Many were questioning the relevance of the notion of ‘original contribution to knowledge’ and asking whether the purpose of the doctorate should rather be to create independent researchers. What do we stand to lose and to gain by changes to the traditional thesis? How can we position doctoral education research to influence policy and practice?

IDERN was a wonderfully lively and thought-provoking event – others will have taken away other recollections and aims for new projects and collaborations.  If you’d like to share your reminiscences, we welcome your comments and additions to our brief summary of the rich discussions in Hiroshima.