University Strategy for Postgraduate Research Student Development

The University Strategy for Postgraduate Research Student Development has been developed to identify the principles and aims that should underpin postgraduate research student development, for both full-time and part-time researchers. The Strategy provides:

a)    a statement of the University’s expectations of training and how training will be developed and implemented;
b)    an expectation against which divisional and departmental/faculty programmes can be assessed.

Principles for Postgraduate Research Student Development Strategy

  1. Researcher development should enable students to define and formulate clearly-articulated research questions and methods that address important issues or problems. 
  2. Researcher development should be embedded in the structure of the DPhil and linked to progression. 
  3. Researcher development should enable students to understand their career goals as well as evaluate and assess the skills, methods and training needed to achieve these and how they can be acquired. This will allow students to progress well both with the DPhil project and career goals. 
  4. Students should be provided, by the University and divisions, with the materials necessary to take ownership of their own academic and career development.

 Aims of the Strategy

The aims of the Postgraduate Research Student Development Strategy are to:

a) empower postgraduate students to enter a range of careers and professions through the provision of innovative development and training in skills that will fit them for an academic career as well as those that will enhance their competitiveness for careers beyond the sphere of Higher Education;

b) support researchers towards completing the best DPhil research project possible whilst developing skills which are transferable to and applicable in a range of academic and professional contexts. This approach recognises that research and training are inextricably linked;

c) enable postgraduate students to articulate the added value to their personal and professional development of their study and research experiences;

d) ensure that students, together with research staff and academics, make the most of a growing range of training opportunities and resources at University, divisional and discipline levels;

e) engage with students and supervisors to establish the principle of investment in career and professional development early on in the DPhil to ensure that students are aware of its importance and relevance allowing them to work towards career goals from the beginning of their programme;

f) provide students with a set of core skills, appropriate to the discipline, that are designed to help students successfully plan and manage a project allowing them to complete their DPhil thesis to the best possible standard within four years’ full-time study.

Expectations of training and how it will be developed and implemented

Programmes for researcher development should be formulated that not only satisfy requirements for the sector (including RCUK, QAA, Athena SWAN and other equality charters and the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers)[1], but go beyond them to contribute to the national and international agenda for research development and training. By adopting a world-leading approach to researcher development, the University should attract and retain the very best postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers.  

Wherever possible postgraduate researcher development should employ collaborative delivery across divisions, departments and faculties. However, the scope of training ought not to be restricted, and working with partners in the public sector and industry is encouraged, building on existing links established through knowledge exchange programmes and public engagement in research activities, resulting in diverse opportunities for research students.

Training programmes can, and should, cross disciplinary boundaries, providing researcher training which is generic with widespread applicability. This permits economies of scale allowing large initiatives to be provided and offers opportunities for interdisciplinary training that enhances researchers’ understanding of how their work fits into the wider academic and public context.

The University’s researcher development training should provide opportunities for peer learning and support from other DPhil students as well as recent post-doctoral researchers. This will enable the passing on of knowledge of the local research culture and provide support and guidance for students. Encouraging such support through peer learning is important given the challenges presented to students and postdoctoral researchers during their research.

The delivery of core methods training should be appropriate to the stage of the DPhil, and tailored to the academic discipline. For example, at the start of their programme, all students will benefit from training in planning and managing their DPhil as a project, how to work with integrity in their discipline, and how to carry out a literature review; other training may be more discipline specific such as laboratory safety, and research ethics. Later in their studies, a focus on making presentations, writing papers and time management may be more appropriate.

It is expected that the Postgraduate Research Student Development Strategy will foster student-led initiatives; for example, providing opportunities for DPhil students to plan and organise training days or workshops.

Experiential learning, providing hands on training opportunities or linking more traditional workshops into further experiential steps such as internships, will allow students to form networks beyond the scope of the University. These will offer mentoring and networking opportunities and this approach will also reinforce the connection between a student’s project and their personal and professional development.

Flexible training pathways, that may be discipline specific, should be designed to provide students with a coherent set of skills, opening avenues for career and research collaborations and reinforcing their ability to complete research projects and other academic tasks. This will augment both their academic and wider professional credentials.

The impact and benefit of the Postgraduate Research Student Development Strategy should be monitored both at divisional and University levels to ensure that the training delivers what is needed and maintains high standards of provision. This monitoring could take the form of metrics and other measures including stakeholder expectations, uniformity of evaluation practice across different training pathways and longitudinal comparisons and impacts, making use of technology as appropriate.

Examples of good practice

  1.  Flexible researcher development provision, arranged into specific pathways, has been developed in the Humanities Division[2]. These pathways have in general been designed to be taken over the course of a single year, alongside either DPhil studies or postdoctoral appointments, and provide flexibility for students to construct their own development provision by combining different pathways that align with their personal and professional requirements.
  2. The MPLS divisional training strategy sets out objectives and goals that provide a structure for divisional work and highlights priorities to departments[3]. The aim is to encourage students to engage with career development training across the life cycle of their DPhil with progression and training becoming integrated. The Graduate School welcome event held at the beginning of Michaelmas term introduces new students to the principle of engaging with career development from the start of their studies.
  3. MPLS have additionally introduced a checklist to be completed by the student and their supervisor at Transfer and Confirmation that requires students to reflect on both their academic progress and engagement with broader training in the following areas: 
  • subject-specific and personal and professional skills which the student has already acquired;
  • any such skills which might require further development or refinement;
  • any other related activities, e.g. presentation of posters, attendance at conferences, etc., which have made a contribution to the development of the student’s work. 

This acknowledges the importance of such activities in a research student’s training and aims to help individual students to cope with the increasing expectation on the part of research councils and other funding bodies that they will maintain a record of such skills and achievements. Additionally, it promotes the importance of a regular review of training needs ensuring that training continues to be tailored to the individual student’s current needs and goals.