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Why is skills training valuable?
Now Playing: Why is skills training valuable?
The skills trainer group discuss the trend for interdisciplinarity in research centres and how this may impact upon the future of skills training. Each member of the group contributes an idea of how skills training might develop and what that might mean for postgraduates researchers. This video may help postgrads to think about what they might gain from skills training.


Cindy: It occurs to me as we move forward that part of the agenda for skills really is going to change people’s perception of it because of the nature of the research now. We keep talking about ‘you could be by yourself’ as if you are, either in a broom cupboard working or you are here doing these amazing intense experiences. It seems to be the funding for a lot of postgraduate researchers are talking a lot more now about collaborative approaches and interdisciplinary approaches. And it occurs to me that we are going to see a difference there in terms of – they won’t just see themselves as… for example in my case my PhD students I see coming through in English now are expected to work in history as well or in sociology as well and often working on research centres which span several disciplines. I think we are going to see a change in how PhD students perceive themselves to be in terms of ‘I can’t just be an English doctoral student, I do have to be aware of other disciplines’ which inevitably challenges us in terms of different skills they want to acquire. There won’t be this sense of isolation and so I think things will be changing there as well in terms of how they perceive themselves.

I agree. I think fostering the interdisciplinary actually could become a major element of skills training in the future because apart from anything it generates an awful lot of the major skills area – this idea of communication. Especially in the context if you have got very specialist subject knowledge and you are going to have to communicate that to somebody who is not versed in the conventions of your discipline you know that’s a major skill in itself. And it’s something I think as a research community we can all buy into and get behind because I think it’s important and you know it has ramifications in knowledge transfer, in the relevance of arts and humanities to society at large. I think this could be a really important way forward.

Cindy: In a way it brings us onto generally the way forward in terms of how we develop skills training, how we help students make the most of the skills they’ve got. I mean, if you had an ideal world, where would you see this sort of skills training maybe in three, four or five years time, either of you?

Ross: I think where I would like to see it going is allowing PhD student to tailor their own skills development programme, because I think one of the problems coming is you are getting an increasing lot of people doing PhDs after having spent 20 or 30 years in work and they don’t need to have a how to write a CV lesson. There are new route PhDs, there are professional doctorates, the whole area is changing and I think if we try and prescribe too much at the moment we are in danger of setting up a very well funded schools development programme that is 10 years out of date. And I think if we rely on government or research councils or individual university hierarchies to keep up with the times and develop their skills programme and change them, again you are going to start getting a really uneven playing field. I think what you need to get is a situation where not just within universities but region-wide and nation-wide there are resources out there and people know about them and people know where they can go and get them and they can start to take control and tailor their own skills development programme for their own ends, within the structures of advice and the education and their own institution. But I think that’s the thing, we need it to be self-sustaining because what we don’t want to find is in 20 years time the money is stopped from government, Vitae no longer exists and suddenly we’re back to where we were in the 1980s. I think that’s the big danger and so I think it needs to be self-sustaining and self-selecting and driven bythe PHD students.

Debbie: I agree completely and something that I would say links to that quite closely is I would really like to see skills training integrated into existing programmes and embedded and these are sometimes seen as buzz words, but what I see especially at Oxford, my institution, where there are just so many graduate students that if we were to run central programmes and to take graduates from each of the individual faculties then you know when the funding would run out for that they would just disappear. Whereas if we actually embed training in graduates daily experience then it is much more likely to be well first of all useful and relevant to their context and relevant to whatever they are working on at the time but also it is something that you know it will last indefinitely and that’s my goal for training.

Cindy: I am wondering whether also we need to change the focus slightly in terms of sustainability. In our graduate school here at Reading what we’re aiming to do is to take the focus slightly off the students in the sense that our training programmes were running in social sciences and developing in arts and humanities, and we’re aiming in the next couple of years to take the training to supervisors because it seems to me they are the missing link in so much of this. You know we talked to postgraduate research directors in schools or heads of schools and departments, we talked to the students, and I think supervisors very often feel left out in that process. They don’t understand that if a student, as I am sure has happened to you in the past, a student comes along and says ‘do I really have to go to this?’ It is very tempting for a supervisor who doesn’t understand the title even of the training and isn’t necessarily interested themselves just to say ‘yeah, okay, don’t worry.’ And so we’re aiming to run quite an extensive series of sessions for supervisors under the auspices really of showing best practice so we have better training for younger supervisors coming in. But also with the idea we can educate them in why this is important and how they can, again the buzzword, but feel empowered by the process themselves allowing them to feel quite confident if they are going to do, for example, learning needs analysis with students. They can sit down confidently and say ‘yeah this is what you need and actually don’t do this and I’m going to give you this’ and some sense of being involved in the process because I do think they have been missed out so far. And so that is what we are aiming to do here and I will be interested to see the results in the next couple of years and see if that’s a way of embedding it in the process.

Ross: I think an awful lot of institutions are starting to look at centralising and starting to look at the process of starting graduate schools or skills training centres because I think at the moment it can be a bit of a lottery depending on which school you are in, which faculty you are in and who your supervisor is, for your access to things. And that is changing and I think it is a welcome development.