Most university doctoral programs are aimed at training candidates to become independent researchers, preferably at a university. In reality, however, a large number end up taking positions outside the academic field. Much of the recent debate about doctoral education has, therefore, focused on good practice in supervision of research, criteria for theses, and career prospects inside and outside academia.
I would like to take the debate in a slightly different direction and question whether we should rethink what it is that we want our doctoral candidates to learn. The key point, I believe, is that we must stop thinking of doctoral candidates as only early-stage researchers and instead think of them as early-stage academics.
While developing expertise on a certain topic by doing fundamental research is, and always will be, the main focus of a doctorate, thinking of doctoral candidates as early-stage academics leaves room to include expertise development in other academic areas such as teaching, creating impact and leadership. In this article, I will focus mostly on teaching because I believe it is best suited to the early-career stage. Some might argue that while this is all well and good, research should come first, second and last in doctoral education. Instead, I argue that it is actually very beneficial, also to research, to invest in developing teaching expertise in doctoral candidates, both for the institution and for the students.
Career paths in academia are changing
Attention to career paths in teaching and staff development has gained importance in the European policy arena in recent years. The European ministers for higher education acknowledged the role of quality teaching in building academic career progression in the Bologna Process Communiqué issued in May 2018 in Paris. That same year, an EUA position paper on learning and teaching pointed to the importance of staff development and better recognition for teaching as central to the academic profession.
In 2019, an EUA thematic peer group explored career learning and teaching and published recommendations towards the creation of a framework for the development of teaching expertise and assessing and recognising teaching achievements. It also made proposals on making room for more balanced career stages, instead of the present model of mainly valuing research.
More recently, at a joint EUA- VSNU conference, a new framework for valuing and recognising academics called “Room for everyone's talent: towards a new balance in recognising and rewarding academics” was presented. One of the key principles was “Diversifying and vitalising career paths: We enable more diversity in career paths and profiles for academics”. Four cornerstones of the academic career were coined: research, education, leadership and impact (and patient care in medical centres) that could be considered when evaluating and recognising academics.
In light of these changes, it is of vital importance to start changing the outlook and skill set of our early-stage academics now. If we continue training them primarily as early-career researchers, we will educate them for the past instead of for the future of academia.
Teaching has value for research, and research has value for teaching
For early-stage career academics, a balanced career would in most cases mean that the majority of time is spent on becoming an expert in a certain area of research, resulting in a thesis on the topic. Even if you believe that this is the only thing that should be achieved, there are several ways in which teaching can support reaching this goal.
Teaching can result in mastering a topic faster. Devising ways for students to learn will facilitate building expertise on the topic. Moreover, the scope of a taught course is often a bit broader than the teacher’s research expertise, so guiding student learning will broaden perspectives, which is often conductive to research. Teaching means interacting with students who might be interested in the research topic and willing to participate in research. This could lead to engaging valuable student partners.
Academics such as Mick Healey and Dilly Fung advocate research-based curricula in which teaching benefits research and research benefits teaching. One should not underestimate the input that students can have in a research project if research and teaching are properly aligned and connected in the curriculum. Doctoral candidates could play a pivotal role in making curricula more research oriented because they are at the forefront of research and they are often still close to the students in age and disposition.
Teaching yields important skills
In the recent EUA-CDE Workshop on “Academic Career Development”, when we asked the value of developing expertise in learning and teaching, participants said that it will sharpen important skills that doctoral candidates will need later in their careers. Different aspects of teaching will contribute to the development of different skills. Supervision is an important part of any academic’s future, both in and outside academia. However, being an excellent scientist does not automatically make you an expert supervisor. The supervision of a group of bachelor and master students will sharpen supervising and leadership skills. Designing and delivering lectures and knowledge clips will provide experience in translating complex problems for different audiences, as well as practice for presentation skills. Last but not least, teaching should be a team-based activity. If done right, it will lead to developing team work skills in different configurations.
Therefore, developing teaching expertise should be an integral part of doctoral education
To achieve all these benefits, doctoral candidates must have the chance to develop their teaching expertise in an open, supportive environment that includes training and peer-support. When we interviewed early-career academics about teaching in the EUA thematic peer group, we often heard that teaching was a very lonely activity, without much support. In such circumstances, development of teaching expertise cannot be optimal. Most doctoral candidates said that their teaching was not a factor in their evaluation. However, many did feel that it was intrinsically rewarding. By starting to develop teaching expertise alongside research expertise at this early stage, we will prepare for a better, well-rounded generation of academics in the future.