Focus on the Process, not the Task

In order to upgrade from MPhil to PhD student status, research postgraduates at Imperial College are required to undertake a certain amount of Transferable Skills Training. One option for obtaining the majority of the required credits on one go, and the reason I was unable to attend CISB10, is the residential Research Skills Development course (“the RSD”), which is run by the Graduate Schools and takes place off-campus in the middle of nowhere a pleasant, rural setting in Berkshire.

For the benefit of future participants, the specifics of the course program cannot be disclosed. However, I can safely summarise some of the skills addressed, taken from the Graduate Schools’ website.

  • PhD Planning and Management
  • Creativity
  • Communication Skills
  • Group dynamics
  • Research collaboration…

You can probably imagine the types of activities, if not the details. The course was fun! It is attended by postgraduate students from across the college. As well as working with a few familiar faces, I made a number of new friends.

At the beginning of the course, the course director read an extract from a document published by the League of Europoean Research Universities (LERU) in March this year entitled Doctoral Degrees beyond 2010: Training talented researchers for society, which

sets out the LERU’s vision for doctoral education beyond 2010

The extract she read was

The modern doctorate is at its core determined by an interplay between professional research experience and personal development, the most important aspect of which is an individual trained to have a unique set of high level skills.

The document goes on to emphasise the value of the transferable skills acquired during the PhD. Some recommendations are made as to how universities, governments, employers and the students themselves should derive the maximum benefit from this “most important” outcome.

When we were issued with instructions during the RSD, we were encouraged to focus on the process, not the task. Parallels were drawn with the PhD process. The LERU document highlights

While historically [the doctorate] was seen as a qualification for an academic career, in many countries and among many employers the doctorate is now seen as a high level qualification that trains people to think deeply and rigorously about a subject and to translate this knowledge into novel opportunities for society.

By focusing on (or at least keeping in mind!) the process as we worked, we could take more from the RSD than if we had considered first and foremost the outcome of the tasks alone. In the context of my own PhD at the moment, this resonates. I feel that the process is progressing well – I have learnt a lot of the background material, developed some useful practical skills, and learnt – through reading, journal clubs, talks and conferences – where the field is at and where it is going. That said, the “task” is somewhat less encouraging. I am frustrated by the lack of results even though I am close to getting there with the first part of my project, and daunted by the seemingly overwhelming nature of the work left to do.

For those NNers who have completed their PhDs, in hindsight do you view your doctorate as a “task” or a “process” (or perhaps a combination of the two?) How do you think others – such as your employer – view it? Has your perspective changed over time?

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6 Responses to Focus on the Process, not the Task

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    I guess the answer is that it is both a task and a process. Certainly a lot of the skills that are learned are learned through the process. Of course, one judges progress through completion of tasks (whether large or small).
    I’m interested, though, in how the PhD was envisioned as training – to what extent was it seen as training for academia, training for research outside academia, and to what extent more general skills training?

  2. Erika Cule says:

    bq. I’m interested, though, in how the PhD was envisioned as training
    Do you mean historically (as referred to in the LERU document)? Or specifically during the RSD?

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    During the RSD.

  4. Erika Cule says:

    Sorry it took me some time to reply. At the start of the course, the course director – channeling the LERU document – stressed that increasingly the PhD is seen as both. The transferable skills we will develop during the PhD are being emphasised to employers as valuable.
    I developed my understanding of a PhD as training part-way through applying for studentships, when it dawned on me that a PhD is not about doing research, but about learning to do research. It is important for someone applying to do a PhD to really understand this. Significant research can be the outcome of the PhD but appreciating that this is the exception rather than the rule allows the student to make the most of the training process.

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