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Research Infrastructures in Ireland: Blog Post 1

16 September 2019

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In the first of the series, Dr Niamh NicGhabhann, University of Limerick, offers an ambitious roadmap for future PhD education in Ireland.

‘We want to make sure that our graduates get the best job for their skills. Not just a job, we want them to get the right job for them’.

When I heard this statement at a conference on ‘Developing Future-Ready Researchers’, organised by the Association of Higher Education Careers Services at Trinity College Dublin in 2018, I honestly found it mind-blowing. It is an ambitious, hopeful statement that, if adopted as a guiding principle, could have the potential to transform the way in which research is integrated into our society, economy and culture.

This excellent conference focused on supporting career pathways for PhD graduates, both within and beyond academia. Drawing on a range of international contexts, conference attendees heard about the number of PhD researchers who are likely to enter academia (less that 10%, according to the conference report), and the need to think about supporting alternate career paths for people who have dedicated at least 3 years of their lives to an intensive process of research, investigation and writing.  Universities across Ireland are encouraged to continually increase our PhD student numbers. We want to ensure that our PhD cohorts are diverse, that the opportunity to progress from BA to MA through to PhD is open and available to all, and that this pathway is not blocked by socio-economic or other factors. This is all positive, and building a diverse PhD research community will ensure that the knowledge that informs design, policy and practice across our society is robust and fit for purpose.

However, while we encourage researchers to undertake a PhD, I do not believe that our existing research infrastructure is fit for purpose for PhD graduates. When a researcher graduates with their PhD, they have to navigate a very complex web of opportunities and options, often without institutional support (and in some cases, without institutional access to essential resources such as academic journals once their library access comes to an end).
In an ideal world, a PhD graduate would be successful in applying for a post-doctoral position, via a national or international scheme, enabling them to continue to develop their research and to produce the research outputs (books, journal articles, creative or design works) that would help them to position themselves within the jobs market.

The reality, unfortunately, is that post-doc schemes are underfunded, particularly at national level, and most of the eligible candidates who apply will not be successful. International post-doctoral schemes are available, but these are not going to be suitable for all applicants – for people with caring responsibilities, for example, the emphasis on international mobility within early career progression can form an insurmountable barrier.

Furthermore, in order to access these opportunities, it is necessary to network internationally, and to participate in conferences – even availing of early career registration rates, costs can easily mount into the thousands. While faculty members can usually avail of some institutional support, this is often not available to graduates without an institutional affiliation. When we talk about diversifying our universities and the knowledge that is produced through research for society, these are just two of the very practical and immediately obvious examples that ensure that the gates remain closed to all but a few.

This is an infrastructural problem that requires a connected and integrated solution. At a very basic level, it is very clear that we have a leaky pipeline. We are investing in PhD research, and investing in the development of a diverse knowledge base, but we risk losing that capacity and potential at the very first post-graduation hurdle. At present, individual universities are aiming to address this issue by, for example, providing training around transferable skills, research career planning, and on developing partnerships with industry. This is all moving in the right direction, but in order to really capitalise on our investment in PhD research, we need an integrated national approach supported by a robust policy framework and appropriate supporting funding. We also need to ensure that this is designed with diversity and inclusion at the centre, in order to avoid replicating a system which is really only suitable for a non-disabled individual with substantial personal funding available, and with no caring responsibilities.

At present, we are investing in potentially transformative research, but failing to really support and manage its integration into society. To return to my opening quotation, imagine if we had an infrastructure that would be dedicated to ensuring that graduates found the best job, the right job for them, focusing on ensuring that their key skills and expertise were able to be embedded within society and to grow, rather than focusing only on a basic metric of employment. What would this infrastructure look like?

It could include a national post-PhD Academy, which would include training in terms of identifying and applying for post-doctoral opportunities, as well as providing access to support for conference attendance, networking, and library resources. It would need to include greater funding for national postdoctoral schemes, and would need to address international mobility requirements in relation to equality and diversity issues. This post-PhD Academy could also focus on proactively enhancing links between policy-making units at regional, national and international level, and the research capacity available. Such a post-PhD Academy could also work on a campaign to highlight the attributes of PhD graduates to a broad range of potential employers, focusing on the potential value that they would bring to an organisation. Indeed, a post-PhD Academy could provide a venue for graduates who work beyond academia to maintain a career-long connection to academic research, and continue to participate in research, providing a model for a new kind of hybrid post-PhD career path.

This is an ambitious model, but such ambition is required in order to realise the potential that exists within our fourth level sector, and to become an international leader in developing an impactful, dynamic and connected research infrastructure that serves our society, economy and culture.

With thanks to Dr. Niamh NicGhabhann, Assistant Dean, Research (Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), University of Limerick, for authoring this post. Opinions expressed are the authors own.

About the Research Infrastructures blog

An Academy blog series by researchers discussing the next steps in the delivery of excellent research infrastructures to achieve Ireland’s higher education, research and innovation goals.

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