Departmental factors

A key role in supporting doctoral candidates to timely completion is the research culture of the department (Kiley, 2005). While the term ‘research culture’ can be contested, it is used here in a sociological sense, with aspects such as shared values, beliefs and practices (Brew, Boud and Malfroy, 2017). At the University of Otago, there is an annual award for departments (large and small) who are fostering the most vibrant graduate research culture.The award has five main criteria: pre-arrival and orientation practices, quality supervision and research support practices, candidate participation in research activities, social events, and gaining feedback on the doctoral experience to improve the programme. Denham (cited in Conrad, 2007, pp. 40—42) provided a helpful table with nine strategies and 45 practical ways to develop the intellectual and emotional climate for graduate research candidates.The nine strategies are promoting the integration of candidates within the department’s community, involving candidates within the broader research culture, developing a seminar programme with high participation, creating a stimulating research ambience, ensuring there is effective pastoral care, promoting social contact between candidates, relating to academic and administrative staff outside the department, creating an environment of warmth and acceptance and creating a sense of place. Some of Denham’s practical suggestions are included below.

Elements promoting a vibrant graduate research culture

Regarding pre-arrival processes, ideally candidates, particularly international ones, should be contacted well in advance of arrival to ascertain their accommodation needs and whether they are bringing family members (and if so, whether there are any schooling or child-care needs). Some institutions may have international advisers who can provide such support. Upon arrival, ideally they should be met by their supervisor or another member of the department, and helped to settle into their accommodation with assistance provided regarding nearest supermarkets, and information about public transport, etc. Once they come into the department they should be welcomed by a morning tea (or similar) to meet academics and peers and be introduced to key people including administrators. If the PhD intake is a cohort-based approach, the department could run an orientation event - perhaps a weekend retreat or a picnic, where new candidates can socialise with peers and academics in a relaxed setting. However, it is important to be mindful of cultural and religious needs when planning such events, depending on the demographics of new candidates.

Quality supervision is vital to a positive doctoral experience (Golde, 2000), so departments should encourage a culture of quality supervision whereby new supervisors are mentored, excellent supervision is recognised and rewarded and supervisors are regular participants in ongoing professional development. The type of research support will vary by discipline and research needs, but whatever the environment, it is important candidates have access to the resources they need to complete their research. The department may also run in-house training programmes to support the development of research and transferable skills in their candidates.

Another key indicator of a vibrant doctoral research environment is candidate participation in research activities. Departments can struggle to get their candidates (and supervisors) to attend research seminars, with some using food as an enticement, and others setting very clear expectations of attendance. Departments should run an annual symposium or retreat where candidates present their research. Ideally, candidates could run events such as journal clubs and peer-writing groups. Candidates should be supported to attend conferences and publish during their candidature. Also, candidates should have opportunities to present their research to undergraduates and at publicity functions.

Socialising is a very important factor to promote a sense of belonging in candidates (Golde, 2000; Kiley,2005). Departments should not underestimate the importance of this aspect, as a common source of stress and anxiety in candidates is social isolation (Cornwall et til., 2019). Consequently, a range of social activities should be offered such as shared lunches, games nights, outings for sport or recreation, international days and celebration of key events (e.g. getting a paper accepted), or days such as Halloween or Chinese New Year. Denham (cited in Conrad, 2007) suggested an annual candidate-versus-staff trivia night to raise funds for charity, with questions based on the discipline. Another suggestion was a treasure hunt, pairing candidates with academic and administrative staff. Many of these events can be organised by the candidates themselves, and at least some should be family friendly.

The final aspect of promoting a vibrant research culture for doctoral graduates is ensuring that feedback is regularly sought on the doctoral experience, with the feedback used to make improvements. Departments can gain feedback via candidate representatives, focus groups with candidates, twice-yearly catch-ups with the head of department, tracking of alumni or more formal surveys - done by both the department and the university. Gerry Mullins and Neville Marsh at the University of Adelaide developed an inventory to use as a tool for departments to evaluate and improve their research culture (Margaret Kiley, personal communication).This tool includes items such as: ‘the seminar programme includes candidates - and they attend’;‘there are candidate-led, peer-support programmes in place’ and ‘candidate achievements (e.g. successful completions, jobs, publishing) are celebrated by most staff’.This tool is regularly used in professional development workshops for heads of department at the University of Otago.

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