From strong roots grow strong trees 

For a tree to grow and thrive, it needs to have strong roots. Roots that are nurtured, fed and given the capacity to do what we know they are capable of will grow. While, in time, we may be dazzled by the brilliance of outstretched branches, beautiful fruit and the leaves as they sway in the wind, we often overlook the supporting roots. 

The PhD journey is like this tree; the roots are the support system of the institution, the faculty, the research management process, the supervisor, all feed into it. The question is, what are the roots being fed? 

The most pressing question in our work is how to strengthen PhD capacity on the African continent. The prevailing answer we encounter is “we need to encourage more students to take up doctoral studies and increase overall cohort numbers,” which is  true. we also hear, “we need to find ways to increase our conversion rates from undergraduate and master’s degrees to feed our PhDs pipeline,” which is also true. And finally, “we need to incentivise students through more financial support and once we when we have done this, we will have succeeded in strengthening PhD capacity.” This we know is far from true. 

Increasing PhD student enrolment is at the top of every nations wish list. However, this insatiable desire for growth of PhD enrolment will do nothing for this continent, its institutions or its varied economies until universities are better at establishing pathways from PhDs into academia or industry, developing the support system for staff and faculty, and being better at communicating PhDs’ value to society. Only then will Africa be able to grow and develop its PhD capacity for what Olufemi Taiwo calls “Africa’s knowledge imperative.” 

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PhD completion rates on the continent must be improved  

OECD data from 2014 shows overall enrolment of PhD candidates worldwide on the rise - including in emerging economies. South Africa appears on the graph with just over 2,000 graduates, a slight increase on the 2011 numbers reported in the CHET report in 2013. 

The Centre for Higher Education Training report looked at eight larger research-intensive institutions on the continent and found growth in enrolment numbers from 2001 to  2011 for Cape Town, Makerere, Ghana, Botswana and Eduardo Mondlane, with dips and peaks over in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Mauritius. Completion figures, by comparison, were negligible.  

The assumption is simple: most students who start a PhD want to complete. So what is hindering them? Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lack of supervisory support and broader institutional support are the two main reasons for non-completion.  

For institutions, failure of candidates to complete translates into a huge financial, time and resource outlay with little direct return. When the funding of many institutions comes down to completion rates, it makes financial planning for the future more difficult. 

Not only do finances suffer, there is also a loss of knowledge when a PhD is not completed and the research that was in progress is dropped before being complete. This is not to say that the development of PhDs on the continent should end, on the contrary. What is needed from institutions are commitments to bettering the staff and systems which underpin PhD education.  These are the institutions that will in turn produce, manage and deploy knowledge to solve problems faced on the continent and problems that have not yet presented themselves - problems that African scholars are best positioned to solve.  

Doctoral graduates are strong players in the research and innovation ecosystem. Currently, they represent untapped potential. When given support to grow, their specific refined skills in conducting research make them highly qualified to create and diffuse scientific knowledge. The money and effort put into developing and increasing Africa’s knowledge capacity through better research is one the world desperately needs.  

Institutions must ask “why?” 

In the huge continental rush to increase the number of PhD candidates, we neglect two key factors: the motivation behind wanting more highly qualified researchers and, more crucially I would argue, supporting and training the supervisors who are entrusted to develop the talent.   

Whilst universities are great at reporting and congratulating themselves on their doctoral enrolment statistics, and governments and institutions alike want to see an increase in the number of PhD students, institutions often fail to articulate the bigger question of “why?” Not enough thought is given by universities to where and how this group of highly educated graduates will enter the workforce. This is especially pressing in an environment where hundreds upon thousands of graduates at all levels are under-employed or unemployed.  

Having more PhDs is not necessarily better if there is no plan to absorb them into academia, government or industry.  
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What needs to be unpacked is understanding and communicating the value of a PhD. It needs to be more than a few pieces of paper – both the one it is conferred upon or the lengthy tome supported by years of research—and seen as a demonstrable catalyst of someone’s ability to investigate, assess and deliver research. It is a mark of potential, not an end result. It should be harnessed and incorporated, leveraged and valued.  

A PhD should be shorthand for an exceptional individual: someone who can come into many different environments and undertake very complicated analyses to produce solutions; an asset in any profession. 

What needs to happen is better buy-in at the most senior university management level and a clear articulation of why PhD attainment matters to an institution, and what they are preparing their future PhD graduates for. To support timely completion, there is also a need to monitor not only outputs, but to evaluate the impact of PhD graduates as they complete their degrees and prepare to enter the workforce.   

Preparing PhD graduates for the next step

Are institutions looking for more graduates to enter academia? In that case, what additional skills are being provided to them, their supervisors or faculties to help them get there?  Competition for academic jobs is growing, so it’s important for supervisors, teachers and institutions to ensure that PhD students interested in this career path are gaining the necessary skills and experience throughout their trainingii.  PhD students have the hard skills around research and credibility to deliver, what sometimes hampers their ability is the lack of “softer skills” needed for academic jobs: presenting, teaching, networking, as well as research communication, management and publication experience.   

Who are the supervisors and staff in the journey? Whereas kindergarten teachers need years of training to teach, there is an assumption that one is ready and able to teach after obtaining a PhD. However, when there is no active training or development of staff and supervisors, and a lack of understanding regarding what the PhD is really for, challenges around strengthening PhD attraction, retention and completion inevitably arise. 

Where institutions are more focused on producing technical researchers for industry or within government, have staff or PhD graduates engaged with either of these stakeholders? Do they know what the research issues are within industries or governments? Has the institution put in place any pathways (e.g. MoUs, internships, etc.) with industry to assist PhD graduates who wish to pursue this careers path? Universities need to engage with industry and their communities to add value to the PhD journey. 

Implement supporting, administrative and reporting systems 

The University of New South Wales in Australia launched a global search for the best PhD candidates in the university’s areas of research strength. They have created a structured PhD program that integrates a comprehensive, compulsory program of career and professional development, along with concurrent engagement with collaborators and end-users of research.  

Whatever the motivation for increasing PhD capacity, institutions need to develop the supporting, administrative and reporting systems, as well as senior faculty with administrative duties to cater to a chosen direction. How many institutions have graduate centre/schools and what is its role? How is it staffed and what is its mandate? What mindset do they have around PhD career pathways and does that complement the desire of the institution? Does it match what is on offer in the way of support? Do the motivations of your institution, staff and faculty align with what the student expects of their experience and their role in their learning? In a relationship predominately driven by the institution, it is imperative to include the student in the journey.  

There is also a role here for institutional alumni offices in tracking graduate careers and overall public contribution as well as providing students and administrative staff with real world connections. 

The other key factor is the training and development of administrative staff and faculty supervisors. Well-developed staff offer institutions many benefits. First and foremost, they are better equipped to support PhD candidates and bring up completion rates. Secondly, they act as role models and mentors to the next generation of academic researchers and professors.  

Upgrading the skills and knowledge of current staff feeds into an important loop: better systems attract better staff who will be able to support more students who are better able to complete their PhDs., This will in turn bring in more funding, opportunities and resources which will increase credibility and institutional reputation.  

Establish clear guidelines

Not enough African institutions have established guidelines of what is expected of administrative staff, supervisors, faculty or students. Institutions need to be clear about what they want from their PhD candidates, align that with expectations of both students and staff, strengthen the underlying systems and invest in formal and informal training opportunities.  

The University of Nottingham, for example, has developed quality manuals that aim to set out as clearly as possible the University's policies and procedures relevant to both teaching and supervision of undergraduate and postgraduate students (both taught and research). These are a valuable source of information for both staff and students. These guides not only outline the role of the supervisor, but also that of the students and other faculty. It also gives clear guidelines of what a successful outcome looks like and how students and staff are to engage with the learning.  

Institutions also need to improve the formal and informal learning available to supervisory staff. Building in career development frameworks for staff and students, which are complementary, will give both sides an idea of where future opportunities lie.   

University College London has incorporated PhD diaries as a useful resource to help PhD supervisors and their students discuss and find solutions to various scenarios. These simple but effective case studies give some context to what PhD students might face (or be facing) and allow supervisors a chance to learn and signpost students who might need help. Each diary comes with a list of questions to help guide supervisors through the problem-solving process and could also be shared with students who are facing similar problems. 

What formal structures do you have within your institutions to add value to your faculty, administrative staff or supervisors and in turn to your students? What does the wider offering with your graduate schools look like? Has it changed to reflect the shifting nature of the labour market and state of research locally, regionally and nationally? 

The African continent needs more PhD graduates in academia, industry and government. More than that, it needs more conducive systems for growth. Incremental growth is better than no growth at all.  

From strong roots grow strong trees. 

The system of PhD attainment in Africa is like a tree that will only thrive when the roots are well looked after. Strengthening the capacity of the underlying system through administrative staff and supervisors training will in turn grow PhD enrolment and completion while building the continent’s ability to solve its pressing issues.  

At a time when budgets are tight, competition for students is high and pressure from stakeholders are increasing, universities can ill afford to not invest and nurture the roots that will grow PhD provisions, saving institutions time and resource as well as build its reputation; and the Pivot Global Education team are here to support that.