University of Strathclyde

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Overview

Summary

This student-led project has constructed a picture of the skills and graduate attributes that former Strathclyde Postgraduate Research (PGRs) students perceive as valued by employers.  The project has explored previous students’ perceptions of the strengths and skills gained during their PGR experience that helped them to secure employment, as well as the support they accessed at Strathclyde when preparing for their transition beyond academia.  This project is timely as the first cohort from the Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Professional Development (PG Cert RPD) graduate this year, and as OSDU plan to redevelop supervisor training in light of policy changes over the coming year.   Furthermore, this research also coincides with the revision of graduate attributes within the university.  The recommendations for this report include further training and support for students in areas where there are perceived skills gaps, and training for supervisors in supporting the personal development of PGR students.

This work was supported by Enhancement Theme funding from the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland

Context

Organisational and Staff Development Unit

Research and Knowledge Exchange Services

Contact Details

Dr Emma Compton-Daw

https://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/compton-dawemmadr/

Dr Katy Savage

https://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/savagekathleendr/

Dr Campbell Reid

https://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/reidcampbelldr/

Lee Coutts, School of Education -  lee.coutts@strath.ac.uk

Victoria Watson, Strathclyde Business School -  Victoria.m.watson@strath.ac.uk

Themes

Student Transitions

 

Rationale 

Many PGR students embark on a PhD with the specific intension of pursuing an academic career in HE (Mellors-Bourne et al., 2012, Sauermann and Roach, 2012).  However, the majority of PhD candidates will now find themselves employed outside of academia after graduating.  Figures published by Vitae suggest that three and a half years after graduation, 17% of doctoral graduates will work in HE research, 21% will teach in HE, 12% will work in research out with HE and the remaining 49% will work in other occupations where often a significant proportion of the workforce has a PhD (Mellors-Bourne et al., 2013). 

Additionally, the supply of PhD graduates far outweighs the demand for PhD graduates in the UK HE labour market.  The Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) data has indicated many career researchers hold unrealistic ambitions; around 80% of researchers aspire to an academic career in a HE institution but a significant proportion of researchers will not achieve this (Mellors-Bourne and Metcalfe, 2017).  This highlights the need for institutions to make researcher aware of a wider range of career opportunities beyond academia, particularly through development conversations and appraisal with their line manager (Mellors-Bourne and Metcalfe, 2017).  The same applies to the PhD candidate, who is in the earliest stage of pursing a research career and who will often look to their supervisor for advice. 

As a result, it is increasingly important that PGR graduates are well prepared for non-academic careers.  Recent research has shown that doctoral training provides PGRs with a number of transferable skills for both research intensive and non-research intensive careers, with similar levels of job satisfaction for graduates, demonstrating that PhD training prepares graduates well for a broad range of careers (Sinche et al., 2017). PGR students will often seek careers advice from their supervisors, who play an influential role in the development of PGR skills and the success of graduates.  However, research from the US by Sauermann and Roach (2012) indicates that PhD candidates within the sciences are strongly encouraged by their supervisors to pursue academic careers over other careers options, largely because supervisors have substantial experience in academic careers and are less experienced in other career options. Furthermore, only a quarter of research leaders feel confident providing careers advice to staff, and so there is a need for institutions to develop these skills amongst their supervising staff (Mellors-Bourne and Metcalfe, 2017).  This indicates that there is also a training need for supervisors, to enable them to advise PGRs on a wider range of careers options.

Recognising the development needs of PGRs, the University of Strathclyde implemented the PG Cert RPD in 2015, to support students in their personal development and prepare students for careers both in and out with academia.  The certificate is closely mapped to the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), a framework which outlines the skills required for a research career.  However, it is not currently known what skills and attributes are valued by employers when recruiting and employing Strathclyde PGRs.  An investigation of this will help to identify where PGR graduates may have development needs, and will also help to inform the revision of the Strathclyde graduate attributes.  Furthermore, with the first cohort of PG Cert RPD candidates graduating this year, there is a need to assess if the programme meets the employability needs of graduates.  Previous graduates are arguably well placed to identify the employability skills valued by employers and the skills gaps that exist in graduates, given that they will have had recent exposure to both education and the labour market (Messum et al., 2016).

The following research questions were developed to answer some of the knowledge gaps identified in the rationale:

  1. What skills and attributes do previous Strathclyde PGRs perceive as valued in their current employment roles?
  2. How well does Strathclyde prepare PGRs for the transition into employment, in careers both within and outside of academia?

Methodology

An online survey was developed based on the skills and attributes outlined in the RDF and distributed via Qualtrics.  Participants in this study comprised of Strathclyde alumni who had completed a PhD and who indicated that they would be willing to participate in a research project, as well as recent PGR graduates who had completed the PG Cert RPD during their PhD.  32 fully completed responses were collected.  Respondents had studied with various departments from all faculties of the university, including Science, Engineering, Humanities and Social Science, and Strathclyde Business School.   Demographics of the participants can be found in appendix one.

The survey asked the participants about the value of the skills outlined in the four domains of the RDF.  For each area of the RDF, the participants were asked: “To what extent would you agree that the following skills and attributes are valued by your current employer?”  The participants were asked to rate each skill using a five point Likert scale, with the options of strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, and strongly agree.  Participants were then asked to identify which skills they felt that their experience at Strathclyde most and least equipped them with.  Free text comments were also collected from the respondents about what skills they felt were most valued.  Participants were also asked about the different services and activities they had engaged in during their time at Strathclyde and what they felt could have been improved.  Based on the results of the survey, follow up questions were sent by e-mail to clarify findings. 

Key findings

The survey results and analysis have been split into four areas within this section of the report.  Firstly, the key graduate attributes and skills which Strathclyde PGR graduates perceive as valued by employers are identified.  Secondly, the skills which PGR graduates felt they were most equipped with by their experience at Strathclyde are mapped against the RDF.  Thirdly, the skills which Strathclyde PGRs felt least equipped with are identified in relation to the skills which were also perceived as most valued.  Finally, a discussion on the employability services which were accessed by the respondents is included.

1. Graduate attributes and skills valued by Strathclyde PGR graduates

Before introducing the RDF, respondents were given the opportunity to state which skills and attributes were most valued by their employer when securing their current position.  The skills identified by the respondents largely matched those the RDF.  The respondents highlighted communication skills, and the ability to demonstrate the transferability of skills, as key skills which helped them to secure employment:

My employer came to our department looking for someone with a PhD who had transferable skills to work on a new project. Those skills included design, accommodating multiple stakeholder requirements and technical communication, all of which were demonstrated in my PhD.”(Participant A, graduated 2017, employed in an academic role) 

My PhD focused on participant recruitment to public health programmes. I've developed this into a public engagement model and now apply it to businesses as well as continuing to work with public health agencies.” (Participant B, graduated 2013, employed in a non-academic role)

Table one: Percentage of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that the skill or attribute is valued by their employer, comparing academic roles with other roles.

 

Engagement, influence and impact

Knowledge and intellectual abilities

Academic

Other

Academic

Other

Collegiality, team working & collaboration

89%

93%

Subject knowledge

100%

100%

Supervision

83%

79%

Research methods - practical application

100%

71%

Mentoring

83%

71%

Academic literacy and numeracy

100%

86%

Publication

83%

64%

Analysing

100%

93%

Influence and leadership

72%

86%

Critical thinking

100%

93%

Equality and diversity

72%

64%

Evaluating

100%

93%

Teaching

72%

64%

Problem solving

100%

93%

Public engagement

67%

79%

Intellectual insight

94%

100%

People management

67%

71%

Research methods -theoretical knowledge

94%

86%

Communication methods & media

67%

79%

Synthesising

94%

86%

Enterprise

56%

57%

Inquiring mind

89%

100%

Global citizenship

50%

57%

Information seeking, literacy & management

88%

93%

Society and culture

44%

64%

Innovation

83%

93%

Policy

39%

57%

Argument construction

83%

64%

   

Languages

50%

50%

   

Intellectual risk

47%

50%

Research governance and organisation

Personal effectiveness

Academic

Other

Academic

Other

Appropriate practice

83%

79%

Integrity

100%

79%

Research strategy

83%

79%

Responsibility

100%

100%

Respect and confidentiality

83%

93%

Preparation and prioritisation

94%

100%

Project planning and delivery

82%

100%

Enthusiasm

94%

93%

Legal requirements

76%

71%

Perseverance

94%

93%

Attribution and co-authorship

76%

64%

Self-reflection

88%

71%

Ethics, principles and sustainability

72%

86%

Time management

83%

100%

Health and safety

67%

71%

Responsiveness to opportunities

83%

86%

Intellectual property rights & copyright

65%

64%

Reputation and esteem

83%

71%

Risk management

59%

79%

Commitment to research

83%

79%

Income and funding generation

59%

69%

Continuing professional development

78%

64%

Financial management

59%

79%

Networking

76%

86%

Infrastructure and resources

47%

71%

Self confidence

72%

71%

   

Responsiveness to change

67%

86%

   

Career management

47%

43%

   

Work life balance

41%

43%

 

The respondents were then asked to what extent they would agree that the skills and attributes outlined in the RDF are valued by their current employer.  Table one indicates the percentage of respondents who either agreed or strongly agreed that the skill or attribute was valued by their employer.  The result were spilt to show the opinions of those in an academic position, and other positions (those were employed in a non-academic position, self-employed or who were not currently employed).

Overall, table one shows that the majority of skills in the RDF were perceived by the PGR graduates as valued by employers, and this was the case for respondents in both academic positions and non-academic positions.  A number of skills showed little variation in the extent to which they were valued by the respondents, including Collegiality, Team Working & Collaboration, Supervision, Subject Knowledge, Responsibility, Appropriate Practice and Research Strategy, to name a few.  These results reinforce the validity of the RDF with regards to academic jobs, but also demonstrate that the RDF is also applicable to research jobs out with academia.  Furthermore, these results demonstrate that the RDF is reflective of Strathclyde PGR graduate attributes and a valid tool for PGR students to use in planning their development.

However, table one does also highlight differences between the skills perceived as valued when comparing academic positions with other positions.  Respondents in academic positions were more likely than other respondents to agree that Publication, Practical Research Methods, Argument Construction, Integrity and Self-reflection were valued by employers.  Conversely, respondents in other positions were more likely than academic respondents to agree that Society and Culture, Policy, Project Planning and Delivery, Risk Management, Financial Management, Infrastructure, Time Management and Responsiveness to Change were valued by employers.  So while the RDF remains applicable to academic and non-academic jobs, there is some variation in the skills perceived by the respondents as valued by employers.


2. Key skills of Strathclyde PGR Graduates

The respondents were also asked which skills and attributes that they felt most equipped with through their experience at Strathclyde.  These skills were then mapped to the RDF.  The results are shown in figure one.

Figure one: Percentage of respondents who felt most equipped with a skill or attribute, mapped to the RDF:

These results are encouraging, given that each of the skills that the respondents felt most equipped with were also perceived by the majority of respondents as valued by their employers.  This indicates that there is a good match between the skills developed during a PhD at Strathclyde and the skills needed in employment.  Figure 2 then compares theses skills with how strongly they were valued by the participants.  This indicates that these skills are also considered to be among the skills which are most valued by employers.  Even although these are the skills that the respondents felt most equipped with, in some skills there is a considerable gap between the number of respondents who agreed that this skill was valued, and the number of respondents who felt equipped in this skill. 

Figure two: Skills that were perceived as most valued, which previous PGR also felt most equipped with by their experience at Strathclyde 


3. Employability support needs

The respondents were also asked about the skills and attributes which they felt least equipped with.  These skills were then prioritised in terms of the skills which graduates also perceived to be of most value to their employers.  This analysis has identified areas of employability which could be improved to support graduates transitions beyond Strathclyde.              The responses from participants who felt least equipped in the skills identified as employability support needs were then analysed in further detail.

Figure three: Skills perceived as most valued, which previous PGR also felt least equipped with by their experience at Strathclyde 

Academic literacy and numeracy, information seeking and management, and legal requirements were skills that were perceived by the respondents as most valued, but which the respondents also felt least equipped in.  Additionally, languages was selected by 72% of the respondents as a skill that they were least equipped with by Strathclyde. While figure 3 indicated that only 50% of the total respondents perceived this skill as valued by their employer, the perceptions of EU and international students differed considerably from home students. 

Academic literacy and Numeracy

Of the PGR graduates who felt least equipped in this skill:

  • 100% either agreed or strongly agreed that this skill is valued by their employer. 
  • 80% had graduated within the last five years (or were about to graduate)
  • 60% had completed the PG Cert RPD. 

This skill was unsurprisingly identified as valuable in an academic career, as 70% of these respondents were employed in academic roles.  Respondents had studied from a wide range of departments including Education, Business, Humanities, Psychological Sciences and STEM departments.  Therefore, students who specifically pursued an academic career from a wide range of disciplines identified this area as a gap in their employability, and recent graduates were most likely to feel less equipped in this skill;

Information seeking, literacy and management

Of the PGR graduates who felt least equipped in this skill,

  • 80% either agreed or strongly agreed that this skill was valued by their employer.
  • 60% graduated within the last five years,
  • 20% had completed the PG Cert RPD.

Just over half (60%) of these respondents were employed in an academic post, suggesting that this skill is perceived to be of value both in and out with academic careers.  Respondents had studied in the School of Education, Strathclyde Business School, School of Psychological Sciences & Health and STEM departments.  Furthermore, only a small percentage (12%) of PG Cert RPD students identified this skill as one that they felt most equipped with.  Therefore, this is a critical area that students from across the university identify as a skills gap.

Within this skill, and with academic literacy and numeracy, some respondents identified that key issue was that they lacked the ability to translate technical information into a business case.  This was particularly the case for respondents working in non-academic jobs, who felt that the PhD did not equipped them well in this area of employability:

“Employers value people who can manage data and reach the ‘so what’ point – covering everything from understanding what data is required (based on hypotheses), appropriate research noting assumptions made if facts are not readily available, collating data in summary form, and synthesising into a key message or recommendation with supporting storyline.  During the PhD training, the first elements are covered as part of good practice for research, but synthesis is not always covered to good enough depth – particularly synthesis related to business case or recommendation rationale.”(Participant C, graduated 2013, employed in a non-academic role)

“Here I found the major stumbling block to be the writing of technical reports, which were required often and valued by upper management.  My initial experience was to write technical reports like I wrote lab experiment reports in the undergraduate courses, and also my PhD thesis which was very technical.  What I lacked was the organization and ability to succinctly tell the story in a logical manner.  Certainly this was missing from the curriculum at Strathclyde during my years there.  It took a while to develop the skills to successful reports that were succinct in their presentation of analyses and conclusions.” (Participant D, graduated pre 2012, employed in a non-academic role)

Legal Requirements

Of the PGR graduates who felt least equipped in legal requirements,

  • 69% agreed or strongly agreed that this skill was valued by their employer. 
  • 56% of respondents had graduated within the last five years
  • 45% of respondents completed the PG Cert RPD. 

This skills was perceived as valued by employers in both academic and non-academic careers.  Within non-academic careers, these respondents were employed exclusively in science, engineering and health care industries; the results were similar within academic careers, however several respondents also worked in education.  This suggests that legal requirements is a skill valued in specific industries and the PGR students would benefit from more tailored support in this area.

Languages

The results concerning language skills are most complex.  While figure three indicated that only 50% of the total respondents perceived this skill as valued by their employer, 81% of EU and international graduates considered languages as a skill valued by their employer.  Of the EU and international graduates who felt least equipped in languages, two thirds perceived this skill was valued by their employers.  This is in stark contrast to home graduates who felt least equipped in languages, of whom only 7% perceived languages as a skill valued by their employer.

The reason for the differences in these perceptions is partly explained by the different locations that EU and International graduates will become employed compared with home graduates.  EU and International graduates were more likely to have been employed internationally; 78% were employed outside of the UK, in countries including China, Canada, Nigeria, Sweden, Germany, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  Home students were almost exclusively employed in the UK; those employed outside of the UK were based in Ireland or the USA.  Therefore, languages is a key area of employability for the transition of EU and international PGR graduates beyond Strathclyde, where the university could provide further support and training.

 

4. Employability support accessed

The respondents were asked during the survey about the kinds of employability support that they accessed while at Strathclyde.  Figure two shows the percentage of respondents who had engaged in a specific employability activity.  Figure two shows a reasonably high engagement from respondents in public output, external engagement and international experiences; however, very few respondents indicated that they had undertaken a work placement or internship during their PhD.  This is perhaps unsurprising given that the almost all respondents had studied on a full-time basis, where time constraints and/or funding arrangements may prohibit additional employment. 

Figure four: Employability activities engaged in by Strathclyde PGR graduates

However, figure four also shows that only 22% of respondents indicated that they had used the careers service.  When asked about the skill ‘career management’, 47% of the respondents identified this as a skill that they felt they were least equipped with by their experience at Strathclyde.  This is an area of particular concern, given that this skill will be crucial in the transition from Strathclyde into employment.  Additionally, given that career management is an area that PGR graduates felt that they were least equipped with, the careers service will be a valuable but potentially underused resource in supporting PGR transitions beyond Strathclyde.  Two thirds of these respondents were EU or international students, indicating a further area where support could be tailored to the needs of international students.  

Recommendations

The results of this report demonstrate that there is a close link between the skills that previous Strathclyde PGRs perceive as valued in the labour market and the RDF.  This reinforces the validity of using the RDF to structure PGR development via the PG Cert RPD. 

Based on the findings of this report, the following recommendations have been made:

Recommendations to current PGR students

  • Given the close match between the skills perceived by PGR graduates as valued by employers and the majority of skills in the RDF, the main recommendation to current PGR students is that they fully engage with and make use of the RDF as a tool for their development.  Current PGR students may struggle to identify where they might have development needs that would hinder their employability.  Therefore, the RDF provides an invaluable tool for guiding PGRs in their development and preparing them for careers both in and out with academia. 
  • PGR students should aim to develop a wide range of skills during their PhD, bearing in mind that the results of this study indicate that many of the skills in the RDF are highly applicable to both academic and non-academic jobs.  Additionally, PGRs should be mindful of the areas of the RDF highlighted were there appears to be some variation as to the skills valued by employers when comparing academic and non-academic roles.  Developing a wide range of skills, suited to both academic and non-academic roles, will help students in their transition beyond Strathclyde.
  • Crucially, current students should also ensure that they not only develop these skills, but that they are able to show how they can transfer these skills in to a number of different jobs and environments.  Outside of academia, being able to present a business case is perceived as a highly valuable skill.
  • Students should consider a range of potential career options for after their PhD and not limit themselves to purely academic ambitions.  A practical guide for students to begin exploring their options is “10 Career Paths for PhDs”, published by jobs.ac.uk (see link one).  Furthermore, PGRs and recent graduates should be encouraged to make full use of the careers service while at Strathclyde. 

Recommendations for RDP

  • Overall this report has demonstrated that there is a good match between the skills that previous PGRs have gained while at Strathclyde, the RDF, and the skills perceived as valued by employers.  However, this report has highlighted some areas where previous Strathclyde PGR students feel that their skills where lacking.  These skills gaps could be addressed through the courses offered under the Research Development Programme. 
  • Two key skill areas that were highlighted in this area were academic literacy & numeracy skills, and information seeking, literacy & management.  Respondents particularly felt that they struggled to articulate the business case when communicating technical information, and so it is recommended that RDP focus not only on equipping students with these skills, but also enabling them to transfer these skills into a different context. 
  • The results also indicated that students would also benefit from further training in the legal requirements specific to their industry. 
  • International and EU graduates particularly highlighted languages as a skill valued by their employers, which they felt least equipped with by their experience at Strathclyde.  Therefore, it is recommended that RDP consider ways in which language support could be improved for international and EU students.  For example, this could include courses in Business English.

Recommendations for OSDU

  • The findings of this report have highlighted that career management is a skill that previous PGRs felt least equipped in.  As identified in the rationale, supervisors are well placed to assist PGR students in developing career management skills that will see them throughout their careers.  Therefore, it is recommended that OSDU consider integrating CPD into PhD supervision.  The aim here is not to turn supervisors into careers counsellors; rather the aim is to support and encourage students in planning their development through supervision, so that when students transition out of Strathclyde, they are better equipped with the necessary skills to manage their careers.  This would involve PhD supervisors assisting PGRs with personal development planning (PDP) through careers coaching.  
  • Training would be required for PhD supervisors to enable them to support PGR students in PDP.  Therefore, it is recommended that OSDU consider training PhD supervisors in coaching conversations.  The GROW model of coaching could be used to guide conversations, and a summary of that conversation recorded in a Personal Development Plan in order to integrate CPD into supervision.  Vitae provide a number of resources that could be used by supervisors to support students in professional development, including information on the GROW coaching model and doctoral career options (see link two).  Furthermore, the Chartered Institute in Personal Development (CIPD) provide template CPD templates and plans for a variety of different career options that could be used to record summarise coaching conversations (see link three). 
  • Furthermore, it is recommend that supervisors promote the support available to their PGR students through the careers service, both during and after their research degree.

Recommendations regarding employability support

This report indicated that a large majority of previous PGR students did not access the careers service.  It is unclear from the results why uptake of the careers service was not higher, however there is a clear need for better engagement from students with the careers service, to support students in their transition from Strathclyde into employment. 

  • The careers service is ideally placed to advise students about a range of careers, and already have dedicated resources for PGR researchers.  Therefore, regular and targeted promotion of the careers service to current PGRs and recent alumni is recommended.  Using various channels to reach PGR students is recommended, such as promotion via supervisors and course representatives.  The careers service could provide unique and invaluable support to PGR students in their transition beyond Strathclyde.

Institutional recommendation

Finally, the following institutional recommendations have been made, in order to support the implementation of the above:

  • Closer working between RDP, OSDU and the Careers Service is recommend, to ensure that both PGR students and supervisors are aware of the careers support available and to better support PGR students in developing their career management skills.
  • It is also recommended that PDP is integrated into the annual review process, to ensure that formal PDP between PGR students and supervisors takes place at least once a year.

Finally, it is recommended that the results of this report are considered by the University in the upcoming revision of graduate attributes, to reflect the graduate attributes of Strathclyde PGRs.

Next steps

  • RDP and OSDU to consider the recommendations made in this report in the development of the PG Cert RDP and the upcoming review of supervisory training
  • A proposal will be made in response to the call for student papers for SEDA Spring Conference 2018
  • A paper for submission to an appropriate peer-reviewed journal will be considered

Lessons learned

The project has revealed some interesting findings.  The survey used could be employed again in the future to see whether or not perceptions of graduates has changed over time. 

Student involvement

The project was carried out by 2 Strathclyde postgraduate research students employed as interns during Summer 2017.

Lee Coutts, School of Education - in Year 4 of the Doctor of Education (EdD) programme (part-time)

Victoria Watson, Strathclyde Business School – in Year 1 of a PhD in Human Resource Management 

Links

Link one: 10 Career Paths for PhDs

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/media/pdf/careers/resources/10-career-paths-for-phds.pdf

Link two: Vitae resources for supervisors

https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/supervising-a-doctorate/supporting-candidates-during-the-final-stages-of-a-doctorate/supporting-doctoral-researchers-with-their-career

Link three: CIPD CPD resources

https://www2.cipd.co.uk/cpd/examples-templates.aspx

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