ERG SES D 01, Research in Higher Education
Background of the Study Extensive search of the literature did not suggest prior studies have examined trends in doctoral students’ participation, and their motivations for engaging in international networking. Yet, networking is considered (i) a key aspect of the doctoral student experience (McAlpine, 2012), and (ii) important for “the development and use of personal and professional contacts (academics and non-academics), with a view to maintaining and furthering academic careers and projects…within, between or outside departments and institutions” (Blaxter, et al., 1998, p. 285), in an increasingly globalised higher education system. However, most research on doctoral students networking focus on academic and social activities within their institutions (Hopwood, 2010; Pilbeam, et al., 2013). National surveys, for example, the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), the only UK higher education-sector survey, collect data on postgraduate research students learning and supervision experience. In PRES 2017, 57,689 respondents took part from across 117 institutions. The findings show that, as in previous years, the lowest scored item remains: “I have opportunities to become involved in the wider research community, beyond my department” (Slight, 2017, p. 4). This suggests that the scale for measuring students’ perception of opportunities for networking (Pilbeam et al., 2013) shows there is a need to support doctoral students regarding access to the wider, arguably, global research community. This agrees with the assertion by Barnacle and Mewburn (2010) that doctoral students need support to develop their scholarly identity through access to both traditional (institutional) and non‐traditional sites of learning. Networking at academic conferences provides opportunities for learning and support from colleagues and mentors (Carroll et al., 2010) in a non-traditional site of learning.
Though scarce, previous research on networking activities amongst conference delegates within established early career researcher networks (Carroll, et al., 2010) exclude doctoral researchers outside their networks. There remains a gap in the literature as to; why and the extent to which doctoral students participate or do not participate in networking in international contexts.
The ongoing funded collaborative research project reported in this paper seeks to provide insight on doctoral students’ participation in networking in national and international conferences. The two-stage, mixed method, multi-country, exploratory study compares the experiences of doctoral students located in four institutions in three global regions; Edinburgh and Nottingham (UK), Melbourne (Australia) and Connecticut (USA). Research Questions Each of our research questions (RQs) is explored at each of the two related, though distinct stages of our study:
RQ Stage 1: What are the trends in doctoral students’ participation in networking in national and international conferences?
RQ Stage 2: What are doctoral students’ perceptions of networking in relation to researcher development?
Increasing agreement in the literature that doctoral students exercise agency in relation to their career and researcher development (Hopwood, 2010; Inouye & McAlpine, 2017; McAlpine & Mitra, 2015) inform the theoretical lens adopted in the study.
Theoretically, this study adopts an agentic view to doctoral students’ networking experiences. It draws on Archer’s view that the powers of social structures and culture are mediated through agency (Archer, 2003). While doctoral students’ networking experiences are characterised by personal, social and structural constraints and enablement within and outside their immediate context, the process of internal conversation enables them to act in accordance to their ‘configuration of concerns’ (Archer, 2003, p. 130). Archer believes that individuals are ‘self-conscious social subjects’ (ibid, p. 134), who actively reflect on their circumstances in order to act.
Adopting this theoretical framework will enable the researchers to link doctoral students’ motivations and perceptions of networking to their actions and inactions resulting from their objective contexts or conditions in which they find themselves.
The study uses survey questionnaires and focus group interviews to obtain data from doctoral students located in four participating institutions in the UK (Edinburgh & Nottingham), the US (Connecticut) and Australia (Melbourne). Ethics approval for the project was obtained at all four participating institutions. All phases of the research design described below apply to all four institutions. An online survey questionnaire comprising of close-ended and open-ended questions was created using Qualtrics. Cognitive interviews were done with 6 participants, to obtain feedback on the survey instrument for the study (Karpen & Hagemeier, 2017). The results of the cognitive interviews showed that many items were consistently interpreted by the participants. A few items were difficult to interpret or not consistently interpreted. We resolved the issue by either rephrasing the questions or using simple sentences. To test whether the survey items answered the research questions, pilot questionnaires were sent to 14 respondents. All respondents completed the questionnaires. For the second stage using semi-structured focus group interviews help to probe in-depth participant motivations for engaging in networking. All interview data are recorded and fully transcribed for later analysis. Thematic analysis of the data allows us to probe emerging themes and categories related to doctoral students’ rationale for engaging in networking and how this relates to their researcher development and career progression.
From an international comparative perspective, the study expects to provide insight on differences and commonalities in doctoral students’ participation in national and international networking. The first stage of our investigation covers the types of networking doctoral students engage in and whether their engagement in networking differ in relation to their level of study (year of doctoral candidature), place of study (geographical location), type of study (whether part-time or full-time), and other variables, such as, their age, nationality and future career aspirations. This directly relates to what Pilbeam, et al., (2013) describe as an area of significant concern for policy makers and institutions in the UK and other countries like Australia and the United States, in terms of researcher engagement as a key developmental process for doctoral students. In addition, the second stage of our study explores doctoral students’ motivations (or lack thereof) for engaging in networking and their perceptions regarding barriers to networking at national and international academic conferences. The study is a timely and a topical contribution to the under-researched area of doctoral students’ experiences as it provides evidence-based insight in relation to doctoral students experiences of networking beyond their institutions. This directly contributes to understanding the main and consistent aspect of dissatisfaction with the doctoral student experience, as reported in the PRES findings (Slight, 2017). The study also addresses concerns raised by researchers in different global regions for the need to support doctoral students’ engagement in learning beyond traditional onsite institutional domains, as an important process of researcher development (Barnacle & Mewburn, 2010; Pilbeam, et al., 2013) in a global world. The study will be useful to institutions, research societies and conference organisers interested in early career research development networks.
Archer, M. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Barnacle, R., & Mewburn, I. (2010). Learning networks and the journey of “becoming doctor.” Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 433–444. Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. & Tight, M. (1998) Writing on academic careers, Studies in Higher Education, 23(3), 281-295. Carroll, J. K., Albada, A., Farahani, M., Lithner, M., Neumann, M., Harbinder, S., & Heather L. (2010) Enhancing international collaboration among early career researchers. Patient Education and Counselling, 80(3), 417-420. Hopwood, N. (2010) Doctoral experience and learning from a sociocultural perspective, Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 829-843. Jazvac‐Martek, M. (2009) Oscillating role identities: the academic experiences of education doctoral students, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46:3, 253-264. Karpen, S., & Hagemeier, N. (2017). Assessing faculty and student interpretations of AACP survey items with cognitive interviewing. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 81(5), 88. McAlpine, L. (2012) Identity-Trajectories: Doctoral Journeys from Past to Present to Future Australian Universities' Review, 54(1) p 38-46. McAlpine, L., & Mitra, M. (2015). Becoming a scientist: PhD workplaces and other sites of learning. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 10, 111-128. Pilbeam, C., Lloyd-Jones, G., & Denyer, D. (2013) Leveraging value in doctoral student networks through social capital, Studies in Higher Education, 38(10), 1472-1489. Slight, C. (2017) Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2017: Experiences and personal outlook of postgraduate researchers. Report York: Higher Education Academy. Inouye, K. S. & McAlpine, L. (2017) Developing Scholarly Identity: Variation in Agentive Responses to Supervisor Feedback, Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 2017, 14(2).
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