The Changing Roles of Universities: Three Ways for Doctoral Education to Respond

In Finland, almost two thirds of PhD graduates work outside academic research 3 years after graduation. This is an understated route to societal impact of universities. Based on our survey among University of Helsinki PhD students, the imaginable “future horizons” of doctoral candidates are still mostly linked to academic research.

The political, cultural and economic environment of universities is changing in Finland and globally. These changes have effects on researcher education and its development needs. Responses need to be developed proactively.

In March 2019, we published our thoughts regarding the role of universities in Finland the 2020s and concluded with some theses. During the first half of the year, we’ve also been working together with the University of Helsinki to co-develop ways for doctoral education to better respond to the changes taking place in the society. In this blog post, we present some ideas on how doctoral education should proactively respond to these changes.

First, universities’ old monopoly positions regarding data, information, professions, and their elite status in society is unraveling all around the world. Secondly, solving the grand challenges of our time needs scientific knowledge, its compilation, and interpretation maybe more than ever.

Three ways for doctoral education to respond to these changes

1) Supporting various career paths

PhD degree holders have a broad range of characteristics, competencies and skills that are highly beneficial in today’s job market. What is needed is the ability to frame these in a way that communicate the potential employee’s expertise in a language relevant to other sectors.

To support the careers of current and aspiring PhD degree holders, universities need to better take into account the reality of PhD students career pathways, and support them for a variety of pathways during training and in professional preparation. 

Researchers need to be well-equipped to collaborate and engage in a dialogue with people from different knowledge communities, often throughout the research process.

In fact, most of the current doctoral candidates at universities are going to work outside academia after they graduate. And those moving on to work outside academia are forging one of the most important routes to increase the societal impact of science and universities. The competences gained during researcher training are spread across other sectors of society and not only confined within the walls of academia.

Doctoral training should now provide PhD degree holders with excellent abilities to work in different roles within and outside universities. Still, there are gaps in how doctoral education supports connections to the “world outside academia”. More support is needed to recognise potential employers; get contacts and build networks; and learn to utilise academic know-how and skills also outside academia.

One efficient way to do this is by exposing PhD candidates increasingly to viewpoints deviating from their close academic surroundings.

2) Developing skills for intersectoral teamwork

The grand challenges of our time call for transformative knowledge which is systemic, critical with both societal and scientific impact. It is produced together with different knowledge communities: various disciplines, public, private and 3rd sector, decision-makers and citizens. In future, research funding will probably increasingly be directed towards this type of research.

Producing knowledge and conducting research in close collaboration with different types of stakeholders brings about challenges, especially those related to ethics and the integrity of research. This requires new skills for multi- and interdisciplinary as well as intersectoral teamwork and collaboration.

PhD training should continue to support candidates to develop competencies in their narrow academic field of specialisation. And, at the same time, adopt more interactive and multi-sectoral ways of conducting research as well as connecting one’s own research to a wider context. 

3) Developing skills for interaction

The public perception of what constitutes expertise has and will continue to change overtime. Researchers’ expertise and objectivity might be challenged, even to the far extent of researchers participating in the public discussion facing personal attacks.

Traditional one-way science communication is no longer sufficient in this new environment. Researchers now need to do more than merely disseminate results. They need to be ready and well-equipped to collaborate and engage in a dialogue with people from different knowledge communities, often throughout the research process.

Early stage researchers should be presented with the opportunity to develop and strengthen their abilities for research-based interaction in this new setting. Doctoral training can provide PhD candidates with a better understanding of the various ways of interaction – and most importantly – of the possible challenges that occur. All disciplines, research themes and researcher personalities should be actively encouraged to find a meaningful way to engage in research-based interaction with other sectors of society.

Publication: “The need for scientific knowledge, education, and critical thinking is growing − 4 theses about the role of universities in Finland in the 2020s”

Kirsi-Marja Lonkila (M. Soc. Sc.) develops the work on research impact at Demos Helsinki. She works in several research projects to make societal interaction and communication in research projects more effective. Myles Klynhout did his internship at Demos Helsinki during Spring and Autumn in 2019. He specialised in higher education issues and collaboration among different stakeholders in the Science in Society team. 

Article photo: Loïc Fürhoff