Tag Archives: university

Why do a PhD?

I have supervised three PhD students to completion and am currently supervising three others at various stages. Many people have spoken to me in the past about thinking about doing a PhD. Here I want to consolidate some of my thoughts on why anyone would do a PhD.

Being a PhD researcher is a great opportunity. But it’s also a significant burden. It’s important that anyone considering applying for a PhD gives it some serious thought. As a minimum it is a three year, full time, commitment. Much more so than undergraduate or other postgraduate study it is all consuming. So it can feel, though doesn’t have to be the case, that you’re life is put on hold for at least three years. At the end you may graduate with a PhD or indeed you may not. It may lead to an academic career or it may not. OK – but it’s not all bad! DON’T STOP READING YET!

So why would anyone choose to do a PhD? I think there are three things to consider: the PhD as an academic apprenticeship; choosing a research topic; and choosing a supervisor.

An academic apprenticeship

The PhD, along with the Professional Doctorate, is the highest award of degree. Unlike the Professional Doctorate (such as the DPA) the PhD is seen to a significant degree as a route towards an academic career.

Alongside your research you may also have the opportunity, or even be required, to teach. You may also have a dedicated desk or office alongside academic staff, you may be invited to take part in other aspects of university administration, you will be expected to present at academic conferences and even publish research papers. It is, typically, more than the individual dedicated study of a research topic as a lone researcher.

The end result of a PhD is that you are recognised as a peer amongst fellow academics. You are “one of us”. As such it is seen as a way to developing an academic career. At the same time you may be perceived by others as over qualified or “too academic” for other jobs. So you have to enjoy academic life and want to develop a career in academia in order to consider applying.

A research topic

The next stage in choosing to do a PhD is to consider the research topic. It has to be something that grabs your interest and sparks your intellectual curiosity. This is a topic that you will be immersed in for at least three years so you have to be really interested in the topic.

Other things to consider here are the nature of the topic. Is it located within a clearly defined subject area or discipline. Is it multi- or inter-disciplinary? Do you see yourself developing a career in that area (back to my first point). Also what links are there between the university / Director of Studies and the discipline? For example, out university is an institutional member of the UK society for public administration – the JUC Public Administration Committee. This brings with it many networking and development opportunities (again back to point one).

It’s also worth considering how any topic has been framed. Naturally most PhD students want to make a topic their own so you may want to ensure that it is not too narrowly defined and that there is scope to put your own mark on it. That is really important as again you may want to consider the type of career you want to have and ensure that the PhD topic will take you in that direction. For example my own PhD included some economics, some strategy and some public administration (and I have taught all three since). In the PhD topic I currently have advertised (see here for details) I have deliberately crafted the topic (on Leading Change in a Public Service Context) fairly broad so that any prospective student can make it their own.

A supervisor

Not only are you choosing a research topic but also a supervisor. It’s vitally important that students and supervisors have a positive relationship. So, as a student, it’s important to do your research!

I remember on my first day as a PhD student all the other students (who were already at least one year through their research) saying how lucky I was to have Prof Stephen J. Bailey as my supervisor.

In many respects the choice of supervisor is much more significant than the institution within which you conduct your research. Just because someone is based in a so-called ‘good’ university does not make them a ‘good’ supervisor! You should find out a little bit about their approach to teaching and research. Their views on students. Their perspective on the nature of the PhD. How many non-completions they have had – and why. Their links to industry and throughout academia. Ultimately upon meeting a prospective supervisor you’ll be able to make a judgement as to whether this is someone you want to work with for the next three years or not! All of these factors may have an impact on both your progress and even your potential career prospects.

Conclusion

I can only speak from my own experience – every PhD is different. I never expected to do a PhD (or even go to university for that matter). But I was fortunate to be given the opportunity of a bursary at Glasgow Caledonian. I was given a desk in a PhD office with some really amazing PhD students who I learned a huge amount from and many of whom are still close friends. I had a fantastic, challenging and yet supportive, supervisor. The PhD was really tough – and got tougher as time went on – but I learnt a huge amount from it that has underpinned my approach to teaching and research ever since. Since completing the PhD I’ve been fortunate to establish an academic career and I love what I do.

So, if you’re thinking of doing a PhD – and you’ve managed to get to the end of this blog post – GO FOR IT!

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Do league tables matter?

League tables are most commonly associated with football. Everyone knows that the team who wins the most games goes up the league table. The team who finishes top at the end of the season our the league champions. Having won the league the champions may secure promotion to a higher league or entry to other competitions such as the Champions League or Europa League. And everyone knows that Partick Thistle are, on that basis, not as ‘good’ a team as Celtic, Aberdeen or Hearts. Yet I still support the Jags and think they are better for lots of different reasons.

So, what about league tables in the context of Higher Education? One of the challenges here is knowing what counts as success? It’s not as simple as scoring goals – there is research output, student satisfaction, completion rates, student-staff ratios, employability. And how highly should each of these be ranked? Each league table rates these factors to differing degrees (see here for more comparison of league tables). As well as the most well known tables, such as The Guardian and Times Higher there are also a number of alternative league tables (see here for more). So the overall picture is incredibly complex, even confusing. Hardly surprising when we consider the complex nature of public services (as I’ve written about previously).

There are many question marks around the way figures are reported and potential gaming that takes place in order for universities to increase their performance. Issues like, for example, whether those universities that score well in research are doing so at the expense of their teaching and learning – and do research active staff also engage in teaching or is this primarily delivered by lowly paid staff on causal contracts or PhD students?

Another challenge is the way in which all institutions are compared on the same metrics and in the same table. It is rather like having Partick Thistle and Real Madrid in the same league and expecting them to be equally competitive. Consider, for example, that the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583, has 6,422 academic staff, 6,458 non-academic staff, endowments of £14.4m  in 2008-09 and total income of £592m (see the Facts and Figure 2016). QMU gained full university status in 2007 (having been first established in 1875 – almost 300 years later than UoE), has a total of 251 academic staff (including researchers) and total income of £38m in 2014-15 (which is actually about half of what Cambridge University received in endowments alone in the same year) (more Facts and Figures 2016). So in terms of headcount alone University of Edinburgh has 26 times the resources that we have at QMU and yet we are expected to compete against the same metrics. To extend the football analogy it’s like playing a team of 286 players against a standard team of 11 players. In this context it might seem that university league tables are truly absurd and best ignored.

Alternatively we could consider the extent to which any one university moves in the rankings year on year. Recently QMU went down on The Guardian league table from 76th to 101st place (see the full table here). But does that mean we have got so much worse over the last twelve months? Again rather than looking at the league table as a whole it might be helpful to compare our closest competitors: Edinburgh Napier (down from 64th to 70th), Glasgow Caledonian (down from 89th to 99th) and Abertay University (up from 93rd to 85th). What this shows is that institutions do tend to move quite a lot year on year. It would seem that very small changes in some of the metrics can result in a very large shift in the league table position. So again, league tables don’t say very much.

Of course, if universities were compared on a per capita basis some of the stats might appear very different. One might ask what on earth do larger, more established universities do with £1bn of expenditure a year or with 26 times the number of staff of smaller institutions. I would argue that QMU generates a lot of benefit with a very small percentage of the income that more established universities enjoy every year. Actually, I think that we are an excellent university. I know that we punch well above our weight and that our staff are incredibly committed to the student experience. I know that we have improved significantly over the seven years that I have worked there. I know there are still things that could improve – but I know that everyone is committed to making that improvement happen.

As just one example of our commitment to the student experience our our recent staff away day focused entirely on our undergraduate provision – and three students were invited to join us for part of the day to discuss their experience. I’ve never known that to happen at any other academic staff away day. And the one common thread across the entire day was how can we improve the student experience and the employability of our graduates. Everyone believes it and everyone is committed to it.

If you want a great experience as a student I can’t promise that you’ll get it at QMU – but what I can promise is that we’ll do everything we can to make it a great experience. What’s more, I know that if you don’t have a positive experience we will ask for your feedback, we will listen AND we will take action.

But here’s the thing; if a student has a negative experience at university, or perhaps doesn’t get the degree they wanted to get, who is ultimately to blame? I actually think it’s misleading to consider the success of a university as being solely down to the performance of the staff. Actually, much of our ‘success’ as measured by league tables, is not within our control. A university is as much a collection of students as it is a group of academics, academic-related and other professional and support services staff. In this sense the analogy with football is clearly completely preposterous – with football the success is down the players on the pitch; with universities the success is as much down to the fans on the stands (the students) as it is down to the players on the pitch. And while it may be easy for football clubs to buy new players during the transfer season what can a university do if the students do not engage in the learning activities in the way that they should? Of course we can encourage students and create learning activities that students want to engage with. But failing that all we can do is award those students lower grades – which then affects our league table position.

So please tell me, what can Partick Thistle do to compete with Real Madrid. And what can WE do to compete with Cambridge?

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Why I don’t like email

Please don’t email me

Every semester when I start my undergraduate teaching I begin by setting the ground rules. Things like the importance of attendance, the need for extensive reading and so on. All what I would expect is fairly standard stuff. However, one area where I seem to differ from many academics is in my approach to student support. I tell all my undergraduate students not to email me.

This may seem unsupportive. I should stress that at the same time as telling students that they should not email me I do explain why and I also explain the variety of other ways they can and will receive support with their studies. However, this message can sometimes get lost. Given the increasingly consumerist nature of students and marketisation of higher education I thought it would be helpful to provide a blog post explaining my position on this issue.

The following provides a detailed list of my objections to email as well as touching on the other ways I provide support to my undergraduate students.

1. Email is distant

Email is an impersonal and distant mode of communication. This does have some advantages, for example with distance learning students. However, I see my full-time undergraduate students at least twice a week – once in lectures and once in seminars. The use of email can create a sense of distance where, in my view, it should not exist. Consequently I tell all my undergraduate students that, rather than send an email, they should rise any questions they have in class.

Now there is an important exception to this rule. I do think there is a need for use of email with postgraduate students, many of whom are either studying part-time or by distance learning, and so do not have the weekly contact that full-time undergraduate students have. It is also fair to say that email contact is useful outside term time for all students.

2. Email is individual and hidden

Students who receive significant advice or support from lecturers via email communication can, in effect, have an unfair advantage over those who do not receive this information. Rather than responding to individual students by email I devote the first 10 mins of class to an open Q&A session. This allows me to relay answers to all students at the same time – thereby eliminating any favoritism or the likelihood of receiving several separate emails on the same topic. Where any questions relate to assignments I make sure to upload the question and reply to our university Virtual Learning Environment in the form of FAQs so that all students can see the reply – and these FAQs are copied over into future years.

3. It takes seconds to send and minutes to reply

Sending email is very easy for the sender. It can take seconds to write an open-ended question such as “I am having difficulty understanding the distinction between concept x and concept y. Could you please tell me how these two concepts relate to the theory of z“.

That may be a very good question. But while it might take seconds to send, replying is likely to take some minutes. As a result we can find much of our time filled up with what many refer to as “dealing with email”. Alternatively, answering such a question in class is likely to take less time and importantly can stimulate a greater discussion among the students and so support their peer-to-peer learning.

4. Clog up inboxes

The desire to be inclusive when using email often leads to sending one email to multiple recipients. From one email you can then receive multiple replies which can very quickly help fill up an inbox. Alternatively using discussion forums or social media will also encourage replies but without the limitations of the email inbox.
Email, sucks.

Source: Kristiewells (available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6022279419/)

Ultimately email inboxes are never big enough. No matter where you work you will undoubtedly have, at some point in your career, reached a point where your inbox is full. This can block other emails from getting to you. As such it is best to encourage less use of email – as well as proper management of your inbox (which I must confess I don’t always do).

5. Lack of tone or inflection.

Part of the difficulty in replying to email is the lack of tone or inflection that is possible. In effect this means that we can spend significantly more time drafting an email in order to fully explain what it is we are trying to say than would be possible verbally. There is also the risk that students who write emails, potentially in the heat of the moment, send something which does not entirely reflect their particular concern(s). This can lead to an answer that does not entirely address their concerns – and so lead to follow-up questions and further email exchanges.

6. Email as a weapon.

There is also a sense that some people may use email in order to receive a written response with the intent that this can be used as “evidence” later. This places even greater onus on us to carefully craft emails. The excessive use of email in this way is also an indication of a lack of trust which should be resisted at every opportunity.

7. Computer security

Recently my personal email account was hacked. All my contacts were sent an email, seemingly from me, with a link which (I assume) was linked to a virus. This highlighted for me the inherent insecure nature of email compared with verbal communication. Social media is not immune to such attacks either and so again verbal communication can be preferable.

8. Casual formality

Emails have the immediacy of a tweet or a text but retain an inherent degree of formality more akin to letters. This makes it difficult to judge what is an appropriate tone. The immediacy of email also contributes to assumptions that all emails will receive a response – and an almost immediate response. In this sense social media can be easier to use as these platforms do not tend to have the pretense of formality that is often associated with email and responses are limited to (in the case of Twitter) 140 characters.

9. Antisocial

There is no substitute for face-to-face contact. At the same time there isn’t enough time in the day to meet with all students separately and so some ‘distance’ support is important. But in my view email is, among all alternatives, one of the worst forms of communication method. Again the closed and impersonal nature of email makes it, in my view, a deeply flawed communication method. In comparison many social media tools, such as Twitter, are open to all and so can stimulate a wider discussion and debate. In that sense I think the use of Twitter is actually better than email. It is also important for lecturers to have regular open office hours where students can simply pop in without having to set up a meeting (something which again usually requires email).

10. The idea that email equals support

Some academics may feel that being available (virtually) to all students 24/7 demonstrates a commitment to student support. But the impersonal and distant nature of email, combined by the lack of inflection or tone, can mean that important context can be missed. It may be that what the student is asking about is a symptom of a greater problem which would be raised through a face-to-face discussion. It is also important to stress on students the importance of attendance and that email correspondence combined with engagement with the Virtual Learning Environment does not represent a substitute for face-to-face contact. Finally it is important, in my view, to encourage students to be independent learners who have the confidence and aptitude to find information for themselves.

Final thoughts

Now all of the above is also qualified by the fact that when an emergency arises which cannot wait until the next class then of course students still can use email. It should not however be the default option for any and all queries. It is important that lecturers provide clear and full (and up-to-date) information to students via module handbooks and Virtual Learning Environments. These sources should help to eliminate the need for students to revert to email communications. Lecturers should also be available at the start and end of classes to address any ongoing concerns and to have regular office hours where students can ‘pop-in’. In my view the use of email is no substitute for these methods of support.

So if you are an undergraduate in one of my classes please note that you will find all relevant information about the module and assignment via the Virtual Learning Environment. Important information will be reinforced in classes. There will also be an opportunity at the start of every class to ask any questions you may have. But unless for an emergency please do not email me.

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Graduation 2012

Last week I had the privilege of going to the QMU graduation ceremony. This is always a highlight of the year for me but this year was quite unique due to the presence of Susan Boyle who received an honorary degree.

Susan Boyle receives honorary degree from Queen Margaret University Edinburgh

This was publicised across the world (see The Jamaica Observer and The Washington Post) and generated a lot of interest in the graduation. What was particularly interesting was seeing paparazzi upon rubbish bins struggling to get a photograph of Susan. Most unusual!

Paparazzi taking photos of Susan Boyle at graduation

After receiving her honorary degree Susan graciously left to attend other prior engagements. This enabled the focus for the rest of the day to be firmly on the graduating undergraduate and postgraduate students of 2012.

I find it particularly special to see students whom I have taught or supervised successfully complete their studies. Among those graduating were the following MBA students.

L-R, Gwenmarie Ewing; Ian Elliott; Giovana Polla

L-R, Ian Elliott; Ros Standish

Among the topics researched from a public services perspective were the following:

Ros Standish, MBA (Healthcare Management), with distinction:

“Change management in acute care: perspectives from therapists’ in non-management roles.”

Abstract:

Previous research into the continuing professional development (CPD) of allied health staff professionals (AHP’s) in Scotland identified change management as a topic which AHP disciplines sought to learn more about. The knowledge and understanding of change management by therapists in non-management roles has not been widely researched, with many former studies focussed on allied health staff in management roles. This research dissertation aimed to investigate the thoughts and knowledge of physiotherapists and occupational therapists on the topic of change management, to understand how they perceive change management relates to their current roles and to identify any future training needs. Using a phenomenological approach, 13 individual semi-structured interviews were conducted and a selection of job descriptions of posts in acute care were reviewed. Two understandings of change management were reported by participants and similarities in change management training needs were noted between clinicians who had similar roles, across different bandings.    

 Amanda Forte, Executive Masters in Public Services Management:

“Organisational change management in a Middle Eastern Culture”

Abstract:

The purpose of this dissertation is to examine how the perceptions of ‘change agents’ in a Middle Eastern organisation impact on the implementation of organizational changes.  The research undertaken consisted of interviews with ‘change agents’ in one particular organisation which had been the subject of various changes since its establishment.  Interviews were conducted at a time when a new change initiative was being initiated with a defined purpose and goal. 

Interviews examined how the main ‘change agents’ perceived the need for change and how they managed this within their own areas.  The research also examined whether there were specific issues which were experienced, within the context of the Middle East, by ‘change agents’ applying western concepts of the management of change.

The research concluded that, the perceptions of the ‘change agents’ did have a significant impact on the management and implementation of change strategies.  The research shows that ‘change agents’ agreement to the need for change is important, but the articulation of the scope and depth of the change to be led by individuals is of equal importance.  Similarly the authority of those leading change must be clearly defined and understood as any ambiguity in the perception of subordinates will impact on their willingness to initiate or implement any changes across the organisation.

New public services programme

An increasing number of students from the public services area are showing an interest in issues of leading and managing change. This is hardly surprising as ‘change’ is increasingly being perceived by politicians as a panacea. Yet the implementation of change is incredibly difficult due to the  human side of ‘transformation’; the nature of organisational culture; and the nature of public services.

It is with this in mind that we have amended our programmes so that our new undergraduate suite has a module on leading change and our postgraduate public services governance course has a module on leading change in the public services.

This September we will be enrolling students onto our new public services governance course and our new MBA suite. These new programmes have taken a considerable amount of effort from all staff and have included feedback from former students and employers. To find out more about the new programmes click here.

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