Time to rethink doctoral development

Recent debate on the Australian PhD has focused on the extent to which it prepares graduates for careers beyond the academy. Implicit in much of this discussion is an assumption that the PhD successfully prepares graduates for careers inside the academy. However, this assumption has recently been challenged by Probert’s OLT discussion paper on scholarship in higher education: her attention to the detail of Boyer’s ideas of scholarship (Boyer, 1990) has reframed discussion on the role of the contemporary PhD in preparing the higher education workforce of the future (Probert, 2014a). Teaching remains a major element of most academic jobs, so—while not all doctoral students may seek an academic career—universities should recognise the need to provide teaching skill development to support those who do. Given the amount of teaching already in the hands of PhD students, such support would, in turn, improve the quality of educational provision in Australian higher education, raise teaching standards and enhance learning outcomes for students.

When new academics begin their career without adequate teaching development, both the academic and their students are disadvantaged. First, teaching self-efficacy is disproportionately influenced by early teaching experiences. Teachers who experience early classroom failures are more likely to ‘be caught in a downward spiral’ of low self-efficacy beliefs, whereas teachers who experience early classroom success are more likely to be insulated from subsequent failures (Morris & Usher, 2011, p. 241). Second, a lack of teaching self-efficacy reduces undergraduate and postgraduate students’ achievement of learning outcomes (Prieto & Altmaier, 1994).

Not all doctoral candidates want to become academics, but for those that do, the PhD is a crucial period in which teaching self-efficacy can be developed (Greer, Cathcart and Neale, 2015). Doctoral candidates are often prevented from participating in academic development programmes designed for staff members because of their status as students. Furthermore, the types of academic development that they are eligible for is often confined to one-off short workshops on tutoring or marking, which fail to recognise the diversity and complexity of the forms of teaching activity that doctoral candidates undertake during their studies or prepare them for employability. Institutions need to reframe their support for doctoral candidates in order to enable them to access development that speaks to their career intentions as well as their current responsibilities.

  • Greer, D., Cathcart, A., and Neale, L. (2015). Helping doctoral students teach: Transitioning to early career academia through cognitive apprenticeship. Higher Education Research and Development. (forthcoming)