New directions in PhDs: online considerations

Dr. Terence Love
Curtin University, Western Australia
IADE/UNIDCOM, Lisbon, Portugal


This paper explores new directions in PhD education from an Australian perpective. It   maps out problems of traditional modes of PhD education and new directions emerging in Europe, the UK, the USA and in some institutions in Australia. The paper  explores how online initiatives may  offer better levels of benefits, and reduce risks, costs and time overruns  in PhD programs.


Across the Western world there are emerging dissatisfactions with existing models of PhD education, resulting in pressures for change (see, for example, Association of American Universities Committee on Graduate Education, 1998; ESRC, 2001a; Gaff, 2001; Kemp, 1999a). The changes to PhD programs being proposed in Australia, the UK and the US are radical in terms of new targets for these programs. Online systems offer ways of supporting these new forms of PhD programs to achieve their aims in an economic, efficient and effective manner.

This paper identifies forces acting to change PhD programs and outlines a likely future form of PhD education in Australia. Against this background, the paper then explores possible online contributions and their incorporation into new forms of PhD education.

Dissatisfactions with existing PhD programs

The sources of dissatisfaction with PhD programs reflect different roles PhD education is expected to fulfil: training in high-level research and theory-making skills, and as a qualification for teaching in universities ( Nyquist & Woodford, 2000) (Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, 1998) (Association of American Universities Committee on Graduate Education, 1998). There are, however, differences between disciplines in regard to the balance of research and tertiary teaching, and, perhaps more importantly, differences between countries.

In the US, many understand the main role of PhD education to be closely tied to the supply of future professorial faculty, and identify one of the most significant problems as a lack of training in tertiary teaching skills and knowledge (Association of American Universities Committee on Graduate Education, 1998; Nyquist & Woodford, 2001). It appears that American educators are relatively satisfied with the current coursework-based modalities of PhD education and regard it as a successful model (Friedman, 2000; Gaff, 2001)

In the UK, the traditional focus of PhD education has been mainly training graduate students as researchers (ESRC, 2001c) with only 5% to 8% of British PhDs holding tenured academic positions 10 years after receiving the award ( Newhouse, 1999). The main problems that have been identified (see, for example, ESRC, 2001a) relate to the standard of research training as evidenced by:

Broadly stated, in the UK, the problem is identified as a lack of the generic qualitative and quantitative research skills that might be expected of PhD graduates, especially skills that underpin cross-disciplinary research.

In Australia, the focus of PhD education has been uncritically located in training researchers to produce a thesis that is appropriate to the international standards of a PhD in the traditional UK style (see, for example, University of Western Australia, 2000). Problems with this form of PhD program have been apparent for some time (see, for example, Southern Cross University, 1997; University of Sydney, 1995) . The recent policy directions from the Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs place the emphasis of Australian PhD programs firmly on research training and support for the national innovation system and economic advancement (Kemp, 1999a, pp 1-3). The deficiencies identified by Minister Kemp (1999a, p iii, 2, 4,) relate to strategic targeting of university research, managing research diversity and concentration, employability of PhD graduates, wastage of public and private resources, long completion times and low completion rates. In short, Minister Kemp is redirecting policy to result in a refocusing of PhD programs; prioritising research training to improve both outcomes and financial efficiency.

Responses to identified problems with PhD Education and Research Training

Worldwide, after a considerable amount of debate, there is emerging a movement of change. A large group of tertiary institutions in the United States of America have recently reviewed their programs and proposed significant changes ( Nyquist, 2001; Woodford, 2001). In the United Kingdom, the ESRC has put forward proposals for UK PhD education as a research training based on core competencies in research skills and knowledge for different areas of research (ESRC, 2001b, 2001d). In Australia, Minister Kemp in 1999 defined clear guidelines for a new development pathway in research training (Kemp, 1999a). The government’s white paper "Knowledge and Innovation: A policy statement on research and research training" following the discussion paper "New Knowledge, New Opportunities" sets out these new directions in Australian research training (Kemp, 1999a, 1999b). Its main features are:

Many of these proposals are now implemented. University schools and faculties in Australia are revisiting their research planning and reviewing their PhD programs in response to this changed policy environment   and especially to the identification of  research training problems in the discussion paper, by. For example,  Monash University ( Monash University, 2001) now claims:

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at Monash signifies that the holder has completed a course of postgraduate training in research under proper academic supervision, has submitted a thesis that the examiners have declared to be a significant contribution to knowledge and which demonstrates the candidate’s capacity to carry out independent research.

At this stage, there appear to be some conservatism in universities’ responses. This sets them at odds with already well-established international movement towards defining PhD awards in terms of defined competencies in particular research skills.

Changes to PhD programs

PhD programs are changing in several ways in their response to the above. Professional doctoral awards increasingly provide an alternative parallel educational stream to PhD research training, and there are moves towards formalizing PhD education through the increasing use of compulsory taught courses, particularly in research methods.

Professional doctorates are being proposed as alternatives to PhD research awards with a shift towards praxical utility and immediacy of professional relevance. This implies that doctoral students may develop less highly developed research and analysis skills because they do not need to address in full the underlying philosophical issues of research processes that form the core of the PhD as a ‘Doctorate in Philosophy’. The main distinction, however, between doctoral education and PhD at present is that the former is strongly dependent on compulsory taught units whereas, traditional PhD programs outside the US often contain few compulsory taught elements, and where they do, they are often located in a separate award (see, for example, ESRC, 2001b). Professional doctorates resolve many of the problems with PhD research programs because:

An example from the UK is the Doctorate in Engineering ( EngD) created under the SARTOR agreements with the Engineering Council (Engineering Council, 1997). These EngD awards require a similar level of study as a PhD whilst providing training in research and theory so that graduates will be of immediate use in industry. The result is increased collaboration between institutions with specific EngD research areas and organisations in related industry sectors and higher levels of industry research funding. Funds are more easily obtained from industry and commerce organisations because industry managers can see direct benefits both in short-term research projects, and in having an increased pool of highly qualified and useful potential employees. The ways that professional doctorates resolve many of the issues identified as problematic in Australian PhD programs suggests that they might offer a useful model for new forms of PhD education.

There are considerable pressures to formalize research training in PhD programs. The evidence suggests that in the UK and Australia, the traditional research training based on supervisor/student relations is not generally effective in assuring that all PhD’s emerge with competence in the generic research skills associated with their area of research (ESRC, 2001a; Kemp, 1999a; Zhao, 2001).  Formal courses training PhD candidates in research skills, knowledge and methods appear to offer the most appropriate way to rectify these problems. The experiences of American universities in using taught courses in the PhD support this conclusion (Friedman, 2000; Gaff, 2001).

In Australia, the factors that stand out in relation to formalising research training through the use of taught courses are:

The likely outcomes are that PhD programs in Australia will become increasingly formalized and move away from traditional elitist models of student-directed research endeavour guided by ‘light touch’ supervision. Kemp’s white paper initiates an external quality verification framework for universities that requires them to publish ‘Research and Research Training Management Plans’ both of which require institutions to make ‘arrangements for ensuring a quality research training experience for research students’ (Kemp, 1999a, p.26). These policy decisions and the findings in the UK and US all point towards the increasing transition towards taught research training in the manner of the US and the UK.

Online Aspects of New PhD Programs

To recap, the main weaknesses of traditional models of PhD programs are that:

The area of research training has been identified as one of the best targets for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of PhD research programs (ESRC, 2001c; Kemp, 1999a; University of Sydney, 1995). Both the ESRC in the UK, and DETYA in Australia, have identified that many aspects of research training may best be delivered to PhD students in a relatively formal manner.

What role might online systems have in this new environment? In answering this question, it is important to separate the pedagogic aspects of the PhD as research training and the management processes that support this training, because the online systems best suited for each role are different in type ( Wenn & Darbyshire, 2000). In addition, the PhD award continues to have a role  as a qualification for university teaching, and US concerns to include specific training in teaching skills and knowledge remain relevant.

For PhD programs whose aim is to produce PhD graduates with high-level and broad-based skills in research, theory making and problem solving, a significant amount of candidates’ acquisition of knowledge and research skills can be undertaken via online systems. In some cases, the training in these areas is likely to be better online than that provided via academic supervision. This is increasingly so for research skills involving the use of computer software where the manufacturers provide tutorials, help and advice as part of the package.

For the management aspects of research training, online systems offer several means of increasing the efficiency of how the research training is managed. Currently, there are several enterprise-strength online packages that offer many of the facilities needed to manage educational, assessment, knowledge management, research training and research processes, for example, Cognos, SAP, ARIS, Blackboard. In addition, there are advances in intelligent agent technologies that are being developed within universities to automate some of the practical detail of routine supervision processes (see, for example, Wenn & Darbyshire, 2000).

For training future academic faculty then, relatively conventional online teaching and learning systems may be used to support PhD candidates to acquire teaching skills and pedagogical knowledge, particularly in relation to online education methods: for example, the use of online bulletin boards,  online portfolios, or online course development systems such as WebCT and Blackboard (trademarks of respective companies).

Some online systems are of particular relevance in the new forms of PhD as research training:

Online discussion groups

Online discussion systems such as ‘ bulletinboards’, open or closed ‘email lists’, ‘newsgroups’, ‘ chatrooms’ and ‘online conferencing’  are  forms of educational support that now have a reasonably well-established history.  Most universities have implemented some forms of electronic discussion.   Jiscmail in the UK ( (previously Mailbase now has several hundred academic discussion lists of which are open to participation by, PhD and doctoral students and some are dedicated to PhD candidates’ use.. Some of the debate on these lists is at a very high level of analysis with email contributions being mini-papers worthy of refereed journal status (see, for example, the PhD-Design list on

The international eco2-irn discussion list (previously on Mailbase) is a good example of the benefits possible from using online discussion groups as part of PhD education (Eco2-irn, 2001). This list, initiated by a PhD student, Tim McAloone (  was one of the earliest lists to have participation closed to anyone who was not a PhD student and working in that area (environmental technology reuse and recycling).  The list was a success in two ways. It allowed PhD students to discuss freely amongst themselves about their research without fear of embarrassment because supervisors and staff members with PhDs were excluded from the discussion, and it led to a strong international community of researchers. The online discussions on eco2-irn resulted in a regular sequence of national and international meetings, they provided support for the creation of refereed papers, they were a major contributor to the opening up a new broad field of research in the UK, and they supported PhD membership in achieving successful completion of their PhDs (there is an unusually high level of completion in this group).

For coursework-based PhD programs, obtaining the benefits of online discussion groups is not, however, necessarily straightforward. Initial evidence indicates that in a coursework environment students may be reluctant to participate in bulletin board discussions because there is apparently little gain for them in terms of their marks ( Geelan, Taylor, & Dougiamas, 2000). A successful solution described by Geelan, Taylor and Dougiamas (2000) was to insist that students participate in interactions on the bulletin board and to give marks for their participation.

Research methodology courses

Courses in research methodology appear to be well suited for delivery online, and online modes of delivery offer many benefits over traditional face-to-face research methodology programs. Traditional research methodology courses for PhD students have two main weaknesses:

  1. Research methodology courses are not usually well aligned in timing with the needs of PhD candidates undertaking the traditional UK/Australian PhD. Financial efficiency dictates that research methodology courses are delivered to as large a number of students as possible, and with as few repeats as possible each year. Individual students have differing research sequences and consequently, research methodology courses are unlikely to be delivered at the best time for each student. This situation is likely to worsen because commencement of PhDs will become more variable in line with changes to the ARC Linkage Grants (
  2. Most general research methodology courses are non-specific and broad-based with an even distribution of attention to all methodologies. This contrasts with research students’ needs to develop skills with some methods in depth whilst maintaining a broad skill profile over the remainder.

In other words, for most students, face-to-face teaching of research methodology is likely to be substantially the wrong material, delivered at the wrong time.

In contrast, by delivering research methodology courses asynchronously online – perhaps supported by online discussion groups and a range of expert support, students can develop skills in research methods at times that are appropriate to their research. They are able to weight their time and involvement to take a broad overview of the methodological landscape, whilst developing expertise in methods that are specific to their research focus.

In addition, many research methods are being computerised, and are undertaken in an environment that provides researchers with considerable computer support. Online modes of  research training align well with the development of expertise in these computerised methods.

Online supervision arrangements

Most forms of postgraduate supervision are discontinuous, with students having only occasional access to their supervisors (see, for example, Monash University, 2000; University of Western Australia, 2000). This discontinuity of supervision contrasts with the widely held view of research studentship being similar to an apprenticeship with students learning their skills alongside a ‘master’ researcher (Zhao, 2001). In many cases, communication between supervisor and student is undertaken via indirect means such as phone, email, or comments in the margin of the candidate’s work. The reality contrasts with the traditional view of supervision as being face-to-face and ongoing.

Initial evidence suggests that these conventional modalities of supervision and feedback are undertaken without detailed reflection on their relationship to the pedagogic foundations of a course and course design principles (Zhao, 2001). This is supported by the paucity of documents about educational aspects of supervision and in higher education found via  Internet searches.  This evidence indicates that the emphasis of PhD supervision is almost overwhelmingly on teaching and learning of  content rather  than research skills.

In this context, the use of online supervision in PhD programs offers a raft of benefits including bringing course designers’ and supervisors’ attention to the pedagogic roles of supervision. Many supervisors and PhD candidates are already using online technologies for communication by email and ftp, exchanging draft sections of theses and comments and other forms of information exchange including data.  Courses designed at the outset to include online supervision can draw on users experiences from these adhoc practices to design course structures and methods to take maximum advantage of the efficiencies of online interactions.

In the main, PhD supervisors are in the same institution that the PhD candidate is registered and undertaking their research, and which provides the necessary resources and services for the PhD candidates research. Online environments offer the decoupling of these different aspects of PhD education. In future, it may be much more common for a PhD candidate to be enrolled at one institution, perhaps drawing on resources from other institutions, and perhaps with supervisor(s) elsewhere in the world. Non of these arrangements are impossible without online support, but the availability of ubiquitous and powerful online facilities make these arrangements easier, more effective, and more satisfactory for student, supervisors, institutions and funding bodies.

Online exemplars

Writing a thesis presents perhaps the biggest problem for PhD candidates. PhD candidates base their PhD thesis writing on a variety of foundations that include:

Thesis writing advice and examples of existing PhDs offer many benefits to PhD candidates, but these benefits are limited because individual candidates’ research circumstances differ. There is a lack of guidance for PhD candidates in choosing appropriate models on which to reliably base the form, extent and quality of their own thesis. Possibilities for improving this situation are bounded by the problem that theses are large and cumbersome objects to move around. The online environment is a medium that facilitates students having easy guided access to carefully chosen exemplars of good practice of research, thesis writing and thesis structures that are appropriate in different contexts and research projects. This is especially important in new disciplines, where the worldwide collation PhD theses into a single resource is a beneficial contribution to the development of that discipline.


PhD programs worldwide are undergoing considerable change. In the UK and Australia, government policy changes through funding bodies are changing the focus of PhD programs onto research training rather than the "contribution to knowledge of an individual researcher". In the UK, scholarship funding is now attached to certification of PhD programs defined in terms of outcomes in research training that are specified in detail for different research areas.

At present, Australia has not moved so far along the path to competency-based PhD education. Government policy and funding arrangements in Australia, however, now clearly emphasises research training, collaboration with industry, and support for national benefits. In this context, it appears likely that Australian tertiary institutions delivering PhD programs must, like American institutions, deliver a substantial proportion of each PhD program has taught courses, especially in the area of research methodology.

In this new order for PhD education, online systems offer benefits in terms of economics, efficiency and effectiveness in terms of teaching PhD candidates, and in managing the practicalities of their supervision.


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