27 February 2019

Inside the PhD

by Dr Heidi Collins

When people consider enrolling in a PhD, many are unsure about what a doctoral degree really involves. In this week’s column, we take a look inside the PhD, to answer some common questions about doctoral degrees. What does a PhD candidate have to do, and what skills will they need to develop in order to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree and future-proof their career?

In rapid changing societies and in rapidly developing industries, there is a growing demand for highly educated people with both specialist technical skills and transferable professional skills. Doctoral degrees are an important training ground for these knowledge workers of tomorrow.

The defining feature of a PhD is the requirement that candidates must produce some kind of knowledge that is new – whether that is a new research method, new theory or a new perspective on a well-known phenomenon. While this quest for new knowledge is often painted as a lonely journey, much of the success of a researcher lies in their connection to others; through their networks of peer researchers, and engagement with the industries and people whose lives they seek to enrich with their research.

It may surprise potential PhD candidates just how broad the skills that are needed for success in their research-based degree, particularly for the exciting kind of research that tackles problems that face our society. Developing in-depth knowledge of a topic and acquiring technical skills are an obvious requirement. But alone, these are not ingredients enough for success. The recipe for advancing new knowledge that will have positive impact on communities includes developing personal and professional qualities such as critical thinking, and the ability to connect, collaborate, communicate, engage, and influence.

It is these transferable skills that are, after all, in high demand with employers. Regardless of the industry they find themselves working in, PhD holders have reported that their ability to solve problems and think critically from different perspectives set them aside from other employees. These skills are critical for jobs in academia, when working on research and development initiatives that take place in industry, or indeed in a variety of other roles within the corporate, government and non-governmental sectors that PhD holders are filling. Technical skills may become obsolete as technologies change, but advanced critical thinking and communication skills will always be required.

Highlighting the need for engagement and collaboration, we are currently seeing much effort from leading universities to help students develop their connections to international research communities and industries. At Swinburne’s Sarawak campus for example, the university is regularly sending research students on placements abroad and inviting scholars from around the world to visit the campus. Through the university’s new innovation management hub Swinburne Innovation Malaysia Sdn Bhd or SWIM, the establishment provides Swinburne’s most innovative students with connections to business leaders, to support the translation of ideas into practice, patents, products, and wealth creation.

While universities provide these formal and informal training and development opportunities to support student success, what do students themselves need to do, to be successful in completing a PhD? While students need to have a strong academic history, my advice is that it is not always the students with the highest grade point average who emerge the most successful. The students who are successful in the long term are those who are willing to network; to engage with communities of researchers, industry and the public, and to invest in developing the many and varied skills and attributes required of a well-rounded researcher.

The development of all of these attributes and future-proof skills requires a high level of determination and commitment from students. As I advise Swinburne’s applicants as they compete for scholarship awards, the university is looking for students who can envisage where their contribution to knowledge, and to society will lie. We are looking for students who can demonstrate evidence of their willingness to work in teams, and engage with their communities. They also need to be willing to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses, and develop themselves from there.

If you ask the question of what a PhD involves to ten different people, you are likely to get ten different answers. The transferable skills I have emphasised in this column aside, there are of course specialist technical skills, and varying disciplinary-specific expectations around what a student must achieve to complete a PhD. The other piece of advice I often offer to people considering a PhD therefore, is to go and talk to people who already hold a PhD or talk to students who are actively working on one now. Also, ask to read their thesis or publications. That will give you a clearer view inside the PhD, and help you decide whether joining a community of research students is the right path for you to future proof your career.

Dr Heidi Collins is the Director – Higher Degrees Research of the School of Research at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at hcollins@swinburne.edu.my