Margaret Kiley

  • Doctoral education

    Convener: Margaret Kiley

    Theme: Learning, teaching and assessment methods


    Three papers (Clegg, Kiley and Wisker et al.) address the issue of assessment in doctoral education. Clegg argues that the Robert’s review indicates that doctoral graduates are failing to reach their potential with regard to employment and she asks how we can assess the ‘value-added’ dimension of doctoral education. Kiley also addresses the core issue of the assessment of generic and employability skills in doctoral education. Following the posing of these questions, Wisker et al. suggest that the viva is one means by which generic and employability skills can be assessed.

    Paper 1: Hot housing: grow your own researchers

    Karen Clegg

    The Roberts’ review of postgraduate research and training (2002) revealed that PhD graduates are failing to reach their potential in the job market. Employers claim that PhD graduates struggle to articulate and recognise the transferable skills they have developed. In response the research funding councils in the UK have provided additional funding for HEIs to address the development of transferable skills within research degree programmes. PhD students are encouraged to undertake training as outlined in the research councils Joint Skills Statement (JSS). This includes a number of precepts under broad heading of: research management, personal effectiveness, communication skills, communication skills, networking and teamworking and career management. This session explores the various strategies being employed at the University of York to develop first-rate researchers. Delegates are invited to act as ‘critical friends’ and to explore some of the challenges posed by the Roberts Review. In particular:

    • What tactics can we use to persuade sceptical academics that transferable skills are a worthwhile part of the research degree?
    • How can we provide appropriate and useful generic training for part-time and international researchers?
    • How do we assess the ‘value-added’ dimension of skills training for PhD students?

    The session will be of particular interest to those involved in supporting graduate research.


    • Gareth Roberts ‘SET for Success’ Report
    • Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Code of Practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards for Postgraduate Research Programmes. Appendix 3 of the report includes the Joint Skills Statement which underpin the training provision for Postgraduate Researchers and Postdoctoral researchers in the UK.

    Paper 2: Can we improve postdoctoral student learning through assessing generic and employability skills?

    Margaret Kiley, The Australian National University

    Australian universities over the past few years have been devoting considerable attention to the description, implementation, development and recording of postgraduate research student generic skills. Testament to this is the theme, Re-imagining Research Education used for the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research conference held in Adelaide, South Australia in 2004 (Kiley and Mullins 2004). Speakers and presenters described the many ways in which most Australian universities had developed research, management, employability and life skills and the ways in which they were providing opportunities for candidates to develop and demonstrate these skills. Metcalfe of the UK Grad Program, a keynote speaker at the conference, described the UK system which appears to have developed and implemented a generic skills program for doctoral candidates in a very systematic manner.

    However, the development and implementation of generic and lifelong learning skills at the doctoral level is not a simple task. For example, Cryer (1998) reported she had set up tutorials to assist research students to: “recognise and identify the skills they already had, and were developing, as an integral part of their research degree work; be able to make a case to justify the existence of these skills to others; and acquire the habit of lifelong" (p. 208). However, the main issue was that the students found it difficult to identify the skills that they had developed and so were unable to adequately define and promote them to potential employers.

    Seemingly independently of these developments, yet in line with moves internationally, the Australian government commissioned a consultant in 2004 to develop an employability skills framework recommending a portfolio approach. While the initial discussion tended to focus on school, vocational, and undergraduate university participants there was a strong move at a National Forum in June 2004 to include participants, at all stages of life and possible employment, including doctoral candidates: “The portfolio approach should foster the continuum of learning across a lifetime. A portfolio is not static, but will continue to evolve with an individual’s education, employment and life experience” (The Allen Consulting Group, 2004). Certainly the eight skills agreed to by the Government would cover many of the skills listed by most universities for their research graduates:

    • communication skills;
    • team work skills;
    • problem-solving skills;
    • initiative and enterprise skills;
    • planning and organising skills;
    • self-management skills;
    • learning skills; and
    • technology skills (The Allen Consulting Group 2004).

    This paper will address the core issues of the assessment of generic and employability skills at the doctoral level. Should universities even attempt to assess such skills? If so, how might they be assessed so that they lead to doctoral student learning, not simply assessment for it’s own sake? How might doctoral candidates identify the skills that they need to develop, those that they already have, and how might they demonstrate these to themselves, colleagues and potential employers?


    • Cryer, P. (1998). ‘Transferable skills, marketability and lifelong learning: The particular case of postgraduate research students’ Studies in Higher Education 23(2): 207-216.
    • Kiley, M. and G. Mullins, Eds. (2004). Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education. Canberra, Centre for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and Scholarship.
    • The Allen Consulting Group (2004). Summary of the national stakeholder forum to progress the employability skills framework.

    Paper 3: Supporting the PhD viva assessment

    Gina Wisker, Peter Hartley (University of Bradford), Gill Robinson, Vernon Trafford

    Anglia Polytechnic University

    The postgraduate PhD viva is a rare form of assessment, expecting as it does that students produce a very sound original coherent PhD thesis for examination and to defend their work their chosen set of methods and their conceptual level of research, their finding and the justification for the award, during an oral defence. This form of assessment, the PhD viva is the subject of this paper building on research findings developed using action research panning seven years work with UK and international based PhD students at APU.

    Relatively little work has been carried out into postgraduate student learning and particularly into the support for the PhD viva. Tinkler and Jackson Examining the Doctorate: institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. (2000) Hartley and Jory Lifting the veil: the experiences of PhD candidates in the UK. Trafford and Leshem and Holbrook have researched the expectations of PhD examiners and recently Hartley and Wisker have provided initial information arising from their research into the use of the CD Rom Interviewer postgraduate viva (SRHE conference 2004) to consider methods of support for student preparing for the PhD viva. This paper reviews research based in the literature on examinations and vivas, and or own research. Specifically it considers our research findings in relation to:

    1. Student perceptions of successful practice developing their defence of research towards the PhD viva in research development programmes and using support from cohorts and peer groups.
    2. Student perceptions of the usefulness of using the CD-ROM interview postgraduate viva to support them in clarifying and expressing and defending their work towards the PhD viva.
    3. Supervisor perceptions of ways in which development programmes, materials, supervisions and the CD-ROM enhances students abilities to define their research during the viva assessment
    4. Examiner response to student vivas - their intentions in undertaking the examination in the viva and their assessment of what construes a positive and successful defence of a thesis.

    This research makes a contribution to knowledge in a much under researched area and builds upon the successful research and publication of the contributors focusing on the research and supervision through to examination of PhD student.