Qualitative Approach to Develop Post-Graduate Students’ Skills Beyond their Research; Mapping Skills Towards Achieving Successful Career Pathways.
Dr Anna L. Seager Research Officer
Swansea University Medical School
Wendy Francis, Stephanie Burnell, Diane E. Kelly
During post-graduate research (PGR) study, a student is committed to enquiry through their research aims but often neglects to devote time for the development of their professional skills. In an ever-increasing competitive employment market, the importance of professional development for careers in research cannot be overstated. Investment in professional development ensures students are equipped with the right tools to forge a successful career in research. The process of professional development involves more than building research skills and profile; it extends focus to understand and hone personal skills, aptitudes and ambitions. The development of broader professional skills has become increasingly significant as many employers look for researchers who can ‘add value’ to their organisations as employees.
To gauge the level of awareness and participation of PG students in researcher focussed professional development, Athena SWAN in Swansea University Medical School (SUMS) has held several focus groups with PG students over successive years (2015- 2017). Discussions covered topics including professional development, employability skills, careers, and ambitions. Consultation with PGR students on careers and employability revealed that most students aspire to an academic career upon completion of their research degree. Many were unaware of the high competitiveness to attain secure academic positions and that only a small percentage of doctoral graduates and research staff go on to have long term careers in academia. For example, a VITAE 2012 report stated the destination of doctoral graduates 3.5 years after graduation in biological sciences disciplines with 27% in Higher Education (HE) research roles but only 7% teaching or lecturing in HE, and 23% working in research roles other than the HE sector. Most students in the focus groups had not given consideration to the real value of a doctoral qualification in relation to obtaining employment and long-term career progression. When questioned on professional development and training opportunities within Swansea University, most students had a good awareness of professional development and the courses available to them. However, those students that had attended some form of training outside of their research (e.g. presentation skills) felt the training was more focussed towards arts and humanities students. Many students felt that training tailored specifically for scientists was not available or not well advertised.
Results from the focus groups suggest there is a gap in training available to PG students in the biomedical sciences area and SUMS. A guide to careers post-doctorate would also be beneficial to students. SUMS Athena SWAN is working (with guidance from the SUMS PGR team) to develop a package to help better prepare PG students for employability. Several seminars are planned covering topics such as engagement and networking, impact of research, career options, and CV tips. The aim of the Athena SWAN seminars is to help students to develop strategies for career progression; to encourage participation in professional development during the study period; and to develop skills for a competitive edge in the job market. Further focus groups are planned with PG students to track the progress and impact of the seminars.
Professional Development, Employability, Careers, Post-Graduate Students, Focus Groups.
Engaging with students and listening to their opinions and feedback can have a positive impact in the development of future training courses.