Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom

YESTERDAY’S Strictly Boardroom column on doing a PhD prompted the following response from Curtin University’s Chris Moran and Sabina Shugg.
Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom Letter to the Editor: Strictly Boardroom

Staff reporter

The experienced, although perhaps somewhat jaded, author provides an, at times, amusing and at other times supportive communication on doing a PhD. A few of the negatives of doing a PhD are, thankfully, overlooked. Fortunately, so are some positives. I would like to expand upon these and leave the question of whether industry or universities are best at convoluted paperwork to another debate in another place when we would have sufficient time to describe our examples.

In a modern Australian university the shift away from sole focus on arcane scholarly outputs and thinking is advanced. Most universities have well-developed systems of reward and recognition that take into account interactions with industry, utilisation of research and, critically, how one is assisting other as ones career progresses. This is important because it is the academics whose system of measurement is changing who are the supervisors of the incoming PhD students.

Bringing industry experience to the table

On this front, many (not all) universities are also becoming far better at the concept of academics with external experience; people who may come in and out of the university system at various times through their career. This can be in both part-time and full-time modes. This provides opportunities for those with a PhD to have a varied career experience, i.e., it is not "all in" or "all out" of university. It also means that PhD candidates have access to a range of life and work experiences in their supervisors. Modern universities are also very open to the involvement of industry technical experts in the supervision team (we have not yet gone so far as to accept fully external PhD advisory committees).

We are also getting much better at the concept of work integrated research. A typical example is where you would be tackling a significant technical challenge at work and can carry out this work as a research project. It does require the candidate to put in some extra effort. However, the quid pro quo is that you can access data easily and the application of your results is more direct and perhaps even under your own control.

Project management is a matter of experience

The one area that I would take some issue with in the article is taking a project approach to a PhD. This is largely disparaged in the article. My personal experience is that putting in place milestone objectives, asking PhD candidates to have a resource management plan (basic project budgeting skills are very rare in PhD candidates) and a plan of methods, data and timing is both appropriate and educative. If an industry person is already experienced in these skills then I assert that the university planning process is light and should be a quick process for most candidates. The one thing that can make a candidature document appear cumbersome (ie large) is a review of literature. This is not a standard input to most industry projects and hence is likely a new skill for the candidate. It is fundamental that if someone is to find a new research question/hypothesis and set about several years of work on it, that they are aware of the literature to date and how their work fits. It is also quite difficult to write an engaging literature review which should include a framework for the search and for interpretation of what is found. These are valuable skills that will pay back for a student for many years; it is particularly useful for those courageous people who undertake a PhD in English when that is not their first language.

Are you ready for a change?

There are many new and exciting things going on in universities in and around postgraduate research. I encourage you to contact a university near you and talk about it. If your initial discussions don't seem constructive or productive try another university. As the authors have noted, universities are by no means homogeneous in their values, outlook or operational style. Most people who have completed a PhD carry lifelong friendships, capabilities to develop new skills and the satisfaction of having seen something for the first time that no other human has seen first (however small and insignificant that may seem to the student's family when they describe it with great energy at the Christmas dinner table). Those who stay in academia tend to be those who immediately become addicted to this sensation (I mean discovery not Christmas dinner ravings). The vast majority of PhD graduates make their way into industry and government for fulfilling and satisfying careers.


Chris Moran is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research at Curtin University where his duties include oversight of the Graduate Research School. He was previously Director of the Sustainable Minerals Institute. He has over 30 years' experience in delivery of research with industry partners and has worked with a large number of research students working with the mining industry.

Sabina Shugg is the Director of the Kalgoorlie Campus for Curtin University, where she is working with an enthusiastic team from across the University to bring robust engagement with the mining industry into the curriculum and research programmes for mining and metallurgy, as well as developing opportunities in health, education and Aboriginal engagement as part of the campus activities. She is also the Founder and Chair of the very active Women in Mining and Resources WA (WIMWA) organisation and a Non- Executive Director for Resolute Mining Limited.

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