Developing employability skills of doctoral researchers in social sciences: exploring students’ perceptions

Elena Golovushkina, Colin Milligan

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

    Abstract

    Past few decades have seen an increased interest in the issues of graduate employability including that of doctoral researchers. The purpose of this paper is to address the gap in the literature and explore the views of doctoral researchers on the employability and skills development issues. The paper details the views of researchers on three aspects of employability: the concept of employability and its meaning for doctoral researchers; employability skills that doctoral researchers expect to develop; and their awareness of employers' expectations. Based on the literature review, research questions have been designed to explore the perceptions of social science doctoral researchers on the issues of employability. Semi-structured interviews have been conducted with 15 full-time PhD students in various social science disciplines at one of the Scottish universities. Initial findings suggest that there is a link between the initial motivations of doctoral researchers to do a PhD degree and their views on employability. The data provides an insight into doctoral researchers' perceptions the understanding of the skills that PhD graduates expect to develop during candidature. The results of the interviews pose questions for further debate on the skills formation at the PhD
    level. Paper provides a valuable insight into the under researched area of employability of doctoral researchers.

    Graduate employability has been the focus of much activity at both research and policy levels within Higher Education. Initially focused primarily on undergraduate students, in the past few years the debate has broadened to include the development of employability skills of postgraduates, including doctoral researchers. Interest in this area is further enhanced by the large number of doctoral researchers pursuing careers outside academia. For example, a recent report produced by the UK Royal Society (2010) indicates that 53% of PhD graduates are employed in the sectors outside academia. These figures are confirmed by the Vitae report "What do researchers do?" (2010) that shows that more than a half of UK doctoral graduates are employed outside academia across the commercial, government and non-for-profit sectors. An emphasis on the range of employment destinations challenges a traditional understanding of a PhD as a degree leading to the employment in academia. In these conditions one of the priorities of Higher Education Institutions is to seek ways of transforming "students into highly proficient, independent researchers, capable of adapting to a range of employment destinations and taking up positions in academe, industry and the professions" (Manathunga 2007, p 19).

    The diversity of career paths of doctoral researchers poses important questions about the skills that PhD candidates should develop to be successful in their chosen occupations later on. Previous attention in this area has been focused primarily at policy and practice level. For example, one of the biggest initiatives in this area in the UK was introduced by the Research Councils that developed the Joint Skills Statement (2001) - a set of skills that Research Councilsfunded postgraduate researchers are expected to develop during their candidature. As a result, this framework was adopted by many UK universities for providing transferable skills training for researchers. Past few years have also seen a growing body of research literature outlining the current discussion on the formation of professional researchers and their employability skills (Cryer 1998, Gilbert et al 2004, Manathunga et al 2009). Despite an increased focus on this aspect of doctoral education, discourse in this area still lacks studies exploring perceptions of doctoral researchers themselves on their employability and the key skills they need to develop.

    In an attempt to address this gap, this paper provides an insight into the perceptions of social science doctoral researchers on the concept of employability and development of employability skills. The paper details the views of researchers on three aspects of employability: the concept of employability and its meaning for doctoral researchers; employability skills that doctoral researchers expect to develop; and their awareness of employers' expectations. Perceptions of doctoral researchers were investigated by means of exploratory semi-structured interviews. The questions used in the interviews were devised on the basis of the relevant literature review as well as the data obtained from the analysis of the secondary data. Semi-structured interviews have been conducted with 15 full-time PhD students in different social science disciplines at one of the largest Scottish universities. Social sciences disciplines were selected based on the list of disciplines provided by the UK Economics and Social Research Council. The participants have been recruited using a mixed sampling technique. The findings represent the first phase of data collection on exploring the perceptions of doctoral researchers and other stakeholders in Scottish Higher Education Institutions on development of employability skills and the ways we can enhance employability of social science doctoral researchers.

    The initial findings suggest that there is a link between the primary motivations of doctoral researchers to do a PhD degree and their views on employability and future career aspirations. The majority of students interviewed expressed an intention to pursue a career in academia upon graduation. This largely determines their understanding of their employability skills and the expectations of employers. For example, when asked what are the 3 things that PhD students need to do to be employable upon graduation, the activities cited most frequently by respondents were ‘publishing research papers' and ‘teaching'.

    The views of participants related to requirements of the employers were also largely determined by their pursuit of an academic career. Another important finding relates to the PhD candidates' perceptions of their learning and how they develop employability skills. The majority of researchers acknowledged the important role of everyday tasks they are involved in, and stated that they develop various skills by engagement in these tasks. Only few researchers mentioned that they develop these skills by attending the skills workshops provided by the university. These perceptions are closely related to the concept of situated learning where learning is acquired in the context of its application (Lave & Wenger 1991). However, one of the biggest challenges of situated learning is its transferability to other contexts. This poses further questions for development of skills of doctoral researchers that can be transferred to different contexts (Greeno et al 1996). These finding potentially may also have some implications for a wider agenda of employability skills development of researchers and the impact of the skills training.

    The study contributes to the body of knowledge on development of employability skills of doctoral researchers in social sciences. It also provides the ground for further exploration of the perceptions of PhD candidates on the skills development during candidature
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages595-596
    Number of pages2
    Publication statusPublished - 2011

    Keywords

    • employability skills
    • doctoral researchrs
    • social sciences

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