Analysing development of employability of doctoral candidates through an Activity Theory lens

  • Elena Golovushkina, Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK

    C Milligan, Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK

    The past few decades have seen a period of constant transformation of doctoral education (Baschung, 2010). Nowadays in addition to producing high quality research PhD graduates are increasingly expected to develop and be able to apply a wide range of competences in order to contribute to different sectors of the economy (Enders, 2004; Craswell, 2007; Park 2007; Mowbray and Halse, 2010). Despite an increased focus on the career destinations of doctoral researchers and the types of skills they are expected to possess, little research has been carried out into the process of development of employability during candidature. Manathunga et al (2007) found that there have been few attempts to explore the learning process at PhD level through the lenses of pedagogical theories. 

    In an attempt to address this gap this paper focuses on the perceptions of doctoral candidates in social science on employability and its development using an Activity Theory. The Activity Theory that has previously been used in the context of doctoral education (Beauchamp et al, 2009; Hopwood, 2010) is applied as an analytical lens to examine the complexity of the learning experience and identify areas that merit further exploration in relation to development of doctoral candidates’ employability.
    The study involved nine semi-structured interviews with social science doctoral candidates in the final year of their PhD studies. Activity Theory was used to design and analyse the interviews with an aim of developing a framework for further study of employability development during candidature.

    Using Activity Theory as a framework, the study focused on several issues. First, the subjects of the process themselves, doctoral candidates who are engaged in the process of becoming independent researchers, their field of study, motivations for doing a PhD, prior work and learning experience. Exploration of the object - participants’ views on employability, and what skills, knowledge and attitudes they consider important to be developed during candidatures, revealed a strong emphasis on focusing primarily on research-related competences and, as a result, a mismatch between the views of doctoral candidates and employers outside academia. The study further explored the activities that stimulate development of employability and also instrumentsused by the subjects in the process of developing employability.

    The paper reports on the ways the respondents view the participants of the community that help them to develop employability. Among mostly mentioned community members are supervisors, PhD peers and researcher developers that share different responsibilities (division of labour), and they way these responsibilities are viewed by doctoral candidates presents some potential tensions for the learning process. The results of the study showed a low level of awareness by doctoral candidates of the main rules and regulations in the area of researcher development in the UK that might have some implications for the learning process.

    On the whole, the study provides an insight into the views of key stakeholders of researcher development process, doctoral candidates themselves, on employability development through analysis of different components of this process that might often be neglected.