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By Cally Guerin

This post reports on the Fourth International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training (ICDDET) held in Malahide, Ireland on 8-9 April 2019. The theme for two days of intensive conversations was ‘Examining the impact of structured training programs’. While the conference was not specifically focused on doctoral writing as such, there was much that is of interest to any of us supporting doctoral writers. As motivations for undertaking a doctorate, the form of doctoral programs and the outcomes expected on completion continue to shift, there are accompanying changes required of doctoral writing.

Malahide Castle, Ireland

Keynotes at the conference were designed to bring us up to date with movements in high-level research policy. We heard from Luke Georghiou, Chair of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education Steering Committee, and from David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England. As you might imagine, the implications of Brexit were at the forefront of everyone’s mind – the UK’s changing relationship with the EU creates serious uncertainties around research funding and international student status. Both speakers were concerned to address the issues of post-PhD employment: Luke Georghiou reminded us that planning for research at the national level rarely addresses the question of how we produce a workforce to do that research; David Sweeney explained something of how this might be achieved, again with a clear message that much of that research will be conducted outside the university sector. It was also informative to hear about the local Irish perspective from Karena Maguire of Quality & Qualifications, Ireland, where concerns about structured learning, vivas, funding and collaborative contexts are familiar to those in other countries too.

The conference also had two plenary panel discussions, one to represent the perspective of PhD candidates, and another to present insights from funding bodies. Anne-Marie Coriat from the Wellcome Trust (which funds approximately 150 PhDs each year) left me wondering whether universities will continue to dominate research training in coming years. I enjoyed these panel discussions that allowed for greater focus on a particular topic and more in-depth conversations. Although scheduling such panels means that fewer delegates can report on their individual research and initiatives, there are benefits in bringing the whole group together and promoting our sense of shared interests and concerns.

For me, the overall highlight was the final keynote by Susan Porter, in which she spoke about the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies project on ‘Rethinking the PhD’. This forward-thinking work included an important document on new forms of PhD dissertations that are appropriate to the requirements and expectations of 21st century researchers. I urge you to look at the website from this project – I’m sure you’ll be inspired.

I also attended a number of fascinating papers presenting successful models of internships and work placements integrated into PhD programs. Alina Congreve (Climate KIC) spoke about her work with PhD candidates undertaking placements outside universities and the valuable role of an interdisciplinary mindset in seeing where skills might be used. Stuart Lister (University of Leeds) outlined the challenges of introducing a credit-bearing training program within existing university award-granting structures; he showed it’s possible, but not straight forward. Jean O’Donoghue (University of Edinburgh) described her team’s work in establishing a formal award course on Innovation and Entrepreneurship for PhD candidates. Caroline Pope (also of the University of Edinburgh) provided a useful framework for evaluating internship programs, making the point that benefits might not always be felt immediately, but that PhD candidates involved nearly always regarded the experience as valuable. This kind of research is important for those faced with reluctant participants who see such activities as a distraction from the PhD itself – perhaps getting the message across about the value of such programs requires hard data to be convincing.

Clearly, the line between universities and the rest of the world is blurring, and doctoral education is part of this major shift in attitudes. All of these people experimenting with new models for structured doctoral programs are pushing effectively against traditional boundaries. I find this invigorating and stimulating – there are so many ways our talented and capable PhD candidates can contribute to society. Through all these changes, the doctorate is maintaining its relevance as a focus for the development of original knowledge.

Each time this group has met, they have issued a statement on the current thinking represented at the conference. You can access the Oxford statement here and find the Stratford Statement on the UKCGE website. These statements are a valuable round-up of the key emerging concerns in doctoral education – keep an eye out for the statement from the 2019 meeting.

I missed out on lots of presentations in the parallel sessions, but conversations around me indicated that there is a lot of very positive work going on in structured training programs in the UK and Europe. There’s good information about the sessions on the conference website.  I’d love to hear about your own impressions and new insights gained from the conference.