Publishing research or preparing for industry: there is not enough time for both.

As we focus more on preparing students for industry is there even time to still publish or do students need to both?

Go to the profile of Peter Derbyshire
Oct 10, 2019
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While some may consider this a cynical view but publishing during a PhD (or directly after) is really about getting your name and work out there and read in the hopes to achieve a job post-completion. It is not like students are publishing their work as a result of all their free time (after all it takes a science student about 4.5 years to complete a PhD on only 3.5 years of income). Students publish because their supervisors and universities encourage it, and you need a publication record to land that sweet post-doctoral cash. But recent changes to research, research funding and research training in Australia is changing publishing as a priority.

The research sector is changing. Through impact and engagement measures there is a requirement for researchers to disseminate their work beyond their fields of expertise and to engage with research partners. This work which goes hand-in-hand with increased compliance issues and reporting for students as well as increased time spent on public engagement. While research supervisors will help in some of this, but the reality is that PhD candidates are required to write these reports and reach through their research. Yes, these activities are important, but it also means less time for publishing.

Of course, this changing research is not a new development. With more and more graduates entering industry rather than academia such changes were anticipated, and the research training system is already adapting. As a result of the ACOLA review[1] universities are now expected to provide transferable skills training to students as part of their PhD candidature along with industry internships either through the Australian Postgraduate Research Interns program or other opportunities. This is not just a cost increase for universities already struggling to fund PhD research but another time cost to students.

Universities are also being pressured to engage more with industry after changes to funding calculations. The Watt review[2] that was undertaken around the same time as the ACOLA review changed the way research funding for universities was calculated. Funding shifted from providing incentives to universities for publications to being based on industry engagement and PhD completions. Not only does this change result in increased pressure to engage with industry but also creates an incentive for universities to complete students as soon as possible.

As a result of the Watt and ACOLA reviews there is an increasing workload on PhD candidates while universities are under increasing pressure to encourage PhD candidates to complete within four years. It doesn’t exactly leave a lot of space for students to publish the findings of their research. In fact the only pressures continuing to push students to publish are research supervisors who are often co-authors on publications and the students need to establish a publishing record and their careers.

For a sector governed by a publish or perish attitude the changes to the Australian research training system risk publications falling by the wayside and disadvantaging our PhD graduates. This may not be an issue for graduates heading to industry career and who will benefit from internships, impact and engagement, and transferable skills training. But for those students still destined for academia and are now being expected to also undertake this industry preparedness training either publication or conference participation (or both) is going to be put at risk.

There are three options that come to mind that ensure publishing is still a viable activity for PhD students. The first being increased support for students that undertake transferable skills training. After the Watt review universities were given the option to extend a PhD scholarship from 3.5 to 4 years at their discretion. One university (that I was aware of) used this extension as an incentive to encourage students to undertake transferable skills training. This allows for students to be better prepared for industry and still publish.

The second option is to make transferable skills training optional. This may be the least desirable option. Ideally students that intend to enter industry would undertake such training however without it being formally recognized there is little incentive to extend a PhD to undergo such training. Also students that know they need further skills training be it writing, statistical or even project management already undertake such training as needed.

The third (and most preferable option) is to accept that students are being asked to do more during their candidature and be supported to do so. If Federal funding for PhD training was increased to allow for publishing scholarships directly after completing, or industry scholarships for students undertaking internships to students who have submitted their thesis students could be provided with the support they need to publish research outputs that can ensure a strong start to their career. 

With more PhD graduates entering industry over academia it makes sense to change the research training system. But when we expect our students to do more in the same (or shorter) period of time other priorities are going to have to take a back seat. If Australia wants to ensure they are producing the researchers of the future they are going to have to support students to compete in the publish or perish world of academia. 

[1]Review of Australia’s Research Training System” Australian Council of Learned Academies, 2016

[2]Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements” Department of Education and Training, 2015

Go to the profile of Peter Derbyshire

Peter Derbyshire

Policy & Projects Officer, Science & Technology Australia

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