By Ian MacNeill |

While British Universities have been offering ‘doctoral’ degrees since the mid-19th Century, the past twenty years have seen some of the most dramatic changes to the PhD experience since the 1st ‘Doctor of Science’ was awarded by the University of London in 1860.

The Internet era has made it increasingly easy to access enormous amounts of information within seconds. Comparatively, aspects of academic research prior to the mid-1990s were far slower  and the sources of information available to researchers were largely confined to what was available in your university library or what could be ordered from larger libraries via a catalogue. While this is a development observed across all academic disciplines, there have also been subject specific changes. In historical research, for example, the digitisation of documents has reduced the need for students to physically visit archives. Moreover, even when they do go to repositories, the most important tool at a researcher’s disposal is now their smart phone (to photograph original documents, rather than posting on Insta) rather than a pencil & notebook.

This post argues for 2 key changes that could be made to PhD programmes in the coming years to better meet the needs of PhD candidates.

Generalisation over specialisation is necessary improve the employment prospects of PhD graduates.

Pursuing a PhD allows students to gain incredibly in-depth knowledge about a certain topic. While this might mean you are invaluable when it comes to obscure questions in pub quizzes, it is also the case that being overly specialised can produce graduates with narrow skill bases which limits career options outwith their field. Now, I’m not advocating that PhD candidates need to have a lesser grasp on their subject area, but what I am suggesting is that PhD programmes should take greater account of the graduate job market and this should be reflected in how PhD programmes are structured.

How current PhDs are recruited is driven by the supply of research funding, and not the demands of the graduate job market. For example, data from the European Union tells us that universities are producing many more PhDs than the industry can accommodate in tenured positions: in recent years the number of PhD students in the EU has risen by almost 25%, while, at the same time, the numbers of academic staff employed by universities in the EU has increased by less than 10%.

While these figures pose questions about the morality of university recruitment materials, which promulgate misleading information about future job prospects to potential students, it also suggests that the skills people learn over their PhD should be widened to enhance their employment prospects. Regardless of your discipline, pursuing a PhD should equip you with a host of transferable skills and attributes, yet these are still too often directed towards securing academic jobs that simply don’t exist

There are organisations, such as the Scottish Graduate Schools of Arts and Social Sciences, which offer a host of inter-disciplinary training, but universities themselves should be doing more to offer generalist training programmes that equip graduates with transferable skills to improve their flexibility in the job market, this could also include industry-based internships being built into PhD programmes.

Expanding the PhD experience, to prepare students for different careers, could readily be accommodated via the introduction of seminars and training which explore areas such as communication, entrepreneurship, management, and leadership to go alongside traditional academic development of critical thinking and analysis.

Team based PhDs could be a solution to the increasing rates of mental ill-health among PhD candidates.

The PhD experience can be lonely, with isolation and mental health problems thought to be one of the main factors in why people don’t finish their doctorates. I came across the idea of a team based approach to a PhD in a blog by Julian Kirchher, who suggested them as a solution to the demands placed on peoples’ mental health during a PhD. He describes his idea of a team based approach to a PhD as:

The PhD student is the project manager of this PhD and assembles a powerful team around them. This team permanently supports, but also challenges the student, boosting the efficiency, quality, and impact of the work. The initial team of the PhD project consists of the PhD student and the supervisor. Whenever possible, practitioners are also added to this project, providing input and co-creating the content of the doctorate. Creating this team is the responsibility of the PhD student (and the team can vary from paper project to paper project), whereas the supervisor may provide valuable guidance on the composition of the team and on how to best recruit its members.

The largely solo process of a PhD is increasingly anachronistic and pretty uncommon in other fields, which leaves PhD graduates less prepared for the team-based, collegiate forms of work found in most industries. Team-based PhDs offer a potential solution to this skill gap and to reducing the isolation expired by many PHD candidates.

These are just 2 ideas for how PhDs might change in the coming years. If you have your own thoughts I would love to hear about them!

Image 1: C. dysfunctional literacy.

Image 2: C. devops.

Image 3: C. actioned.

Ian is currently in the final stages of writing up his PhD, which is based on the evaluation of a resettlement intervention for young prison leavers. You can find him on Twitter.