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Chapter 5: Reflections

Using data from

Photograph of attendees at the Practitioners Forum 2022
Headshot - Fintan Bracken

Dr Fintan Bracken, Director of the Office for Institutional Planning and Research, South East Technological University

Since I joined South East Technological University (formerly Institute of Technology Carlow) in January 2018, we have sought to use the results of to improve the experience of our students. In my previous role in the library, we mined the free text qualitative comments from students to determine if there were areas that we could work on to enhance the provision of library services, such as quiet study spaces and more books and journals. The University has also used student feedback from the free text comments to increase work-based learning opportunities, and to increase the support for maths and academic writing.

In my current role in the Office for Institutional Planning and Research, I analysed data for each Faculty as part of the 2021 Programmatic Review across the Carlow and Wexford campuses. The nine main indicator scores for each Faculty were compared to the institutional and national means, and also compared to the previous three years. This allowed each Faculty to examine their strengths and weaknesses and start to formulate strategies to improve students’ experience.

My role in using data for the Programmatic Review highlighted to me how useful this information is, but also how the data is being under-utilised, as it is had been difficult for programme directors and others to access the data. This prompted us to develop an interactive Power BI dashboard in summer 2022, which will be made available to heads of Faculty/ schools, heads of departments and programme directors across all of SETU in the 2022-2023 academic year. This will allow users to assess the student experience for Faculties/ schools, departments, and programmes over time and benchmark them with internal and external comparators. I hope that this would lead to changes that will improve the SETU experience for students, with the support of the Teaching and Learning Centre and other units of the University.

Headshot - Ger Lardner

Ger Lardner, Former Career & Skills Consultant (Graduate Researchers), University College Dublin, and Former Chair of the AHECS Postgraduate Research Task Group

It is now generally recognised that postgraduate research students (PGRs) need, and can benefit significantly from, employability-focused skills training, in parallel with their formal research education. State and EU investment in research has grown enormously in the last 20-odd years, and these funders increasingly stipulate that PGRs receive formal transferable skills training. The Postgraduate Research Task Group of The Association of Higher Education Careers Services (AHECS) welcomed the first PGR and recognised it as a rich, valuable data source that could influence both policy decisions and best practice in professional career development for PGRs. 

The Task Group decided, following in-group discussion, to compare the reported experiences of students of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) with those students of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This choice was based on the perception that, historically, large-scale funding was largely directed towards STEM research and we were curious as to how that may have impacted on the AHSS experience. The initial task was to examine the questions posed by PGR, focusing on elements of the data relevant to the employability of PGRs across all disciplines, and then to compare and contrast the results of students of AHSS versus students of STEM

The findings provided a snapshot in time of the funding, motivations, career aspirations, and development of PGRs across Irish HEIs. Significant differences were noted between the AHSS and STEM cohorts relating to motivation, funding, teamworking and career aspirations. AHSS PGRs are more likely to be self-funded, to be motivated by passion for their subject, to aspire to an academic career, and to report less opportunity for teamworking than their STEM counterparts. It was also noted that the percentage of all PGRs taking part in an internship, who have experience in technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship, or have availed of careers advice was low. See the full report HERE.

Some red flags in the results emerged. An example from a practitioner point of view was the apparent lack of teamworking opportunities for AHSS PGRs. Teamworking was consistently cited as one of the most valuable skills to employers. Another red flag was the AHSS aspiration towards academic careers when, when fewer than 10% Doctoral candidates would acquire a tenured academic position. We were surprised by the low exposure of all PGRs to innovation and entrepreneurship.

What did we hope to achieve with our research? The group envisaged that the observations in the report would inform policy decisions leading to timely career interventions for all PGRs and raising awareness, particularly among AHSS PGRs, of the national and international career prospects beyond graduation. In addition, we hoped that the findings might influence stakeholders in AHSS researcher education to look through additional funding and/ or creative re-configuration of programmes, to build more development opportunities, particularly teamwork and entrepreneurship, into the AHSS research experience.

However, it is important to comment on the timing of this work. Both PGR 2019 and our follow-up research was conducted pre-COVID-19. The write-up and the delivery of the paper (May 2020) was during the first Irish lockdown. Had times remained ‘normal’, I as a practitioner would have been very focused on working with Humanities and Social Science colleagues to raise awareness among AHSS PGRs of the value of teamwork, the opportunities outside of academia, and the value of innovation and entrepreneurship within both academia and industry. But the world was turned upside down during the pandemic and PGRs were not physically in the classrooms. We are now once again on the cusp of change. I have just retired as a Career & Skills Consultant for Graduate Researchers at UCD and I ask myself two questions. Are the findings still relevant? If I was heading back to this new academic year, would planned changes/ ideas be still implemented? The answer to the first question is "yes" and the answer to the second question is also "yes", because the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore global challenges and problems that require solutions. The move to remote working may have, inadvertently, levelled the playing field for AHSS in terms of agility, teamwork and innovation. We are all still working in teams, all innovating, albeit in a different medium. The combination of AHSS PGRs being driven by motivation and more likely to self-fund paints a strong picture of creative, committed individuals with strong critical thinking, independence, and time management skills – skills highly in demand. This report would be confirmation to AHSS PGRs that the need for creative critical thinkers will only increase. It’s a powerful and positive message for PGRs.

Albert Einstein once wrote, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” The unpredictable future brings interesting problems to solve. However, researchers are adept at dealing with ambiguity and learn to thrive in the process. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the climate emergency and the effects of the war in Europe, may change the hierarchy and value of skills but the need for resilient problem solvers will only increase. As a career practitioner, I would be encouraging all PGRs (and particularly AHSS) to re-frame global and societal challenges and see them as opportunities to build interesting and meaningful careers while contributing to a better future.