Signalling and the Structured PhD

‘Signalling’ is the idea that the value of third level education is not just that it provides students with knowledge and skills that are useful in the workplace but that it acts as a sort of marker for certain innate qualities that the student had in the first place. (Signalling is discussed in more detail in this very interesting UK report: “Methodological Issues in Estimating the Value Added of Further Education, Higher Education and Skills: A Review of Relevant Literature”). Thus, it is not always the content of a degree that is important but the innate characteristics that are required to have earned that degree, and especially to have earned a particular grade in that degree. There is no doubt that many employers, especially those in ‘non-specific’ areas like management consulting, see signalling as a key part of their recruitment methodology; they recruit the person not the discipline. The signalling idea has important policy implications because there might well be more cost-effective ways of sending the correct signal to employers, a signal that matches the student’s attributes to the employer’s needs.  (I should say that I am taking an entirely utilitarian view of education purely for the purpose of this argument!)

Signalling is even more important in PhD education. When PhDs were rare, the very fact of having a PhD sent out a pretty clear signal to the employer about the qualities of the person who had earned the doctorate. PhD graduates were characterised by being highly ‘academic’ and having an independent mind-set. But things are more complicated nowadays. PhD students now range from the outstanding to the average, from the highly enthusiastic and intellectually curious to the unmotivated, from the fiercely driven and ambitious to the ones who are just serving their time. The quality of PhD theses is similarly variable.

So, in that kind of environment, it makes sense to structure the PhD process. By ensuring that all PhD students acquire certain ‘transferable’ skills, we reduce the variability somewhat. Nowadays, PhD students, whose numbers are many, have very varied personal and academic attributes. Soon, however, employers will be more confident that candidates with PhDs have a basic set of skills that can be applied in the workplace no matter whether their PhD is in molecular biology or pure mathematics or romantic poetry. Structured PhDs are here to stay because they improve the signal being sent to employers.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Signalling and the Structured PhD

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Signalling and the Structured PhD

  2. Mick says:

    Being forced to do transferable skills modules sometimes feels like some sort of punishment to me. Not a single one available in my university is in any way relevant to my PhD. As a result they sap my time, taking me away from the thing that I love, my PhD, and make the entire process far more of a chore than it needs to be. In effect, they detract from the quality of the final thesis due to taking up valuable time and energy. Students end up ‘playing the game’ and do as little as possible to get the credits because so many of these modules are pointless. I hear nothing but good things from Graduate Studies departments and academics who are in favour of this sort of structured approach, but I see very little feedback from actual PhD students on the subject. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places, since all the ones I know feel the same way I do. Might I suggest a survey of all the registered PhD students in the country?

  3. Greg Foley says:

    Mick, I think it’s early days yet and there’s a lot of ‘making it up as you go along’ stuff going on. But there are some good things happening. Have a look at the Food Graduate Development Program in UCD. It’s been up and running for about five years and they get very good feedback from the PhD students. (Admittedly I would say that because my wife is the program manager for it!) The key thing that they have found is that if the students can see some clear tangible benefit from the module and if the lecturers are really committed to the idea (and not doing it because they have to), the module will be successful. Modules in scientific writing (Alan Kelly in UCC does a very good course) and even Leadership (given by a particularly inspiring person) have been really well received. But your point about the importance of student input is a good one and maybe these programs need a bit more student involvement in the design phase.

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