Fuzzy skills agenda just dumbs down our PhDs

January 17, 2003

Doctoral students should be adding to knowledge, not ticking off a list of skills learnt, says Stephen Rowland

The PhD has changed. Traditionally, it was a programme of study whose outcome was a contribution to knowledge. For many, it served as a preparation for an academic career. But reduced resources for higher education have made higher education increasingly dependent on the commercial sector. At the same time, students are discouraged from pursuing academic careers by poor pay and job opportunities.

While more students than ever complete doctorates, they increasingly seek jobs outside higher education. In response, funding bodies want university PhD programmes to train postgraduate students in skills needed for wider employment. This process of modernisation threatens the intellectual basis of postgraduate study.

Can the PhD prepare students to make an original contribution to knowledge and to succeed in the competitive job market?

Completing a PhD requires an unusual degree of intellectual engagement and commitment. For that reason, it is an education that develops the student in many ways that will be invaluable in later life. But does it prepare students well for work outside academia? In the past, it would seem not, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's latest consultative report on research degrees, Improving Standards in Postgraduate Research Degree Programmes . The chair of the report's steering group observed that PhD students left "with few of the skills necessary to enter the job market".

It is claimed, however, that doing a PhD can develop skills that can be transferred to this wider employment context. The term "transferable skills" is often used in conjunction with key skills, core skills, generic skills, employability skills or, more simply, the skills necessary to enter the job market. Lists of such skills include items as specific as "CV preparation" and as general as "creativity".

But there is little agreement about what such skills are and even less evidence that they can be readily transferred from one context to another. It is not obvious that the creative philosopher can use the skill of creativity in financial management. Even the preparation of a CV is radically different in, say, academic and creative arts contexts. Furthermore, there is little agreement about which "skills" can be learnt in the normal course of PhD study and which require some "bolt-on" training.

Despite this lack of clarity, skills development, and a belief in transferability of skills, is key to reconceptualising the PhD as a form of generic vocational training. Hefce's report reveals some confusion over this matter. Although concerned about raising the standard of PhD study, it is "not concernedI directly with the principal output of the PhD, the thesis as an original piece of work" but with inputs, processes and "the additional output measures that form the totality of the research-degree programme experience".

It is not at all clear how one can make judgements about programmes without judging their output, the thesis. The "additional output measures" that include employability skills are more significant. Prospective PhD students and their supervisors must understand that students will be judged on not only their ability to make a novel contribution to knowledge but also on supposedly transferable skills gained during the experience.

If the acquisition of transferable skills is to be measured, the student's successful completion of the PhD will, presumably, depend on their assessment in these skills. For only if they are assessed can we expect students - who have a hard enough task in trying to make an original contribution to knowledge - to take these measures seriously.

The implication of this is that academic staff will be required not only to fulfil the daunting task of supporting their students to add to knowledge but also to give them an ill-defined set of supposedly transferable skills. This presupposes not only a belief in the existence of such skills but also the ability to train students in them. Few academics are able to do this or are interested in doing this. And it is not clear that employers know what they are or want the same skills.

It is time for a little honesty. If graduates are really to undergo generic employment skill development, the PhD is probably an inefficient means of achieving this end. But if universities are to make a contribution to knowledge, and if this is what the PhD student is embarking on, this should be the focus of PhD programmes. If these changes come about uncontested, students will be sold short, the research mission of universities will be undermined and employers misled. That would be dumbing down all round.

Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education at University College London.

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