The responsibility turn: building responsible doctoral programmes for a responsible future

responsible doctoral education

Eva Cools, DBA Manager & Research Manager of Vlerick Business School and co-chair of the 2021 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference (DPC), shares her reflections from the conference.

Recently I had the honour to co-chair the 2021 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference (DPC), together with Christine Unterhitzenberger from the University of Leeds. Although we already chose the conference theme “Responsible doctoral programmes for a responsible future” in September 2019, it could not have been timelier to discuss this within the current pandemic situation.

Together with 75 representatives of 21 countries, we engaged in three online conference half days using various concepts (keynotes, panels, serious game demonstrations, world cafés, bring your own challenge, rooftop terrace bingo,…). Irrespective of the session type, it was striking that the online formula led to the same level of engagement, critical questioning, exchange of practices,… as we use to have offline. All of this shows us that we succeeded in creating a safe and informal environment, even in this online setting.

Both the numerous newcomers to the conference and habitués went home with inspiration for small and big innovations as well as the relief that their challenges are also other people’s challenges. It is always a great feeling to realise you can learn so much from people within the same profession, despite the big diversity in doctoral programmes and the impact of one’s own organisational and national context.

Looking back

We started the first day with some general frameworks focusing on how to align doctoral education with your school’s mission and purpose. Peter McKiernan (University of Strathclyde and co-founder of the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative) presented the 7 underlying principles of the RRBM framework. Alexander Hasgall (European University Association Council for Doctoral Education) gave an overview of the EAU view on doctoral education. He stated that that doctoral training should increasingly meet the needs of an employment market that is wider than academia, be designed to meet new challenges (AI, ethics, research assessment, mental health, SDG,…) and include appropriate professional career development opportunities, which is a  shared responsibility of institutions, doctoral candidates and supervisors. Wilfred Mijnhardt (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University) gave the example of RSM to demonstrate how transformative change can be embedded in a holistic way within your mission, governance, knowledge production model and faculty career model and hence shift your doctoral programmes towards the impact agenda.

Of course, these frameworks are all very nice and inspirational, but the key is how to translate them in a strategic and operational way to your own doctoral programmes and at the same time consider your own political and organisational context. If you try to translate some of the principles of responsible science to your doctoral programme, what would this mean? This is exactly what we discussed during the conference.

Following the calls for responsible science and impact, the doctoral education landscape went through massive changes over the last couple of decades, resulting in more formalisation and diversification, as presented by Stan Taylor (Durham University & Chair, UKCGE Research Supervisors’ Network). Many challenges that came up throughout the conference relate back to this changing doctoral landscape, such as: what is the purpose of a PhD? who accesses this journey? how to deal with an increasing number of PhD students and the increasingly diverse students in terms of background, but also in terms of format (part-time/full-time, professional doctorates versus traditional PhDs, blended formats)? preparing students for what? The shift in doctoral education from academic reproduction (to become an academic) to human capital production for the knowledge economy (resulting in more diverse PhDs and careers) clearly influences the way doctoral programmes need to be organised to have impact.

Throughout the conference, we focused on different elements within the doctoral journey, from recruitment to engagement and completion plans, to supervision and preparing doctoral students for the job market. It is impossible to summarize the richness of perspectives shared, so here I list just some key take-aways:

  • Networking and building a network are important success factors. Use your network to bring doctoral students in touch with other institutions, visiting scholars, business partners,… and encourage doctoral students to build up their network through internal research seminar presentations, external academic conference presentations, talking with faculty and other peers, etc. An important prerequisite is the availability of funding (e.g. at the institutional level) to create these opportunities.
  • Supervisors need to be supported to be the superhero’s we expect them to be. It seems no longer enough to be an expert in your field and a good researcher to be a good supervisor (the old master-apprentice perspective). You also need to be a mentor, have good people skills, take care of your students’ well-being and give career advice (even for a career you might not have experienced yourself, e.g. in business). This implies a realistic time allocation for supervision and a realistic number of PhD students, realism in the expectations towards what supervisors can do and appropriate training/mentoring for supervisors to deal with the diversity of students and programme expectations.
  • Peer-to-peer activities and other research activities are a strong tool for engagement and to build a research culture in which doctoral students are an important key factor. Also, the use of alumni came up in different sessions as an important asset to create impact and engagement. Overall, be clear in your expectations in terms of output, impact, career from the start and live up and follow up on these expectations in all dimensions.

And what about the pandemic? The pandemic made some challenges of doctoral education more pertinent than before, e.g. mental health, engagement, isolation, proper follow-up, community building, supervision, mentorship, etc. But it also gave a push to programme innovations that will probably last after the pandemic, e.g. more online events and courses and hence inclusive activities, even more attention for the human behind the PhD student, the importance of a good informal and formal network, etc.

Looking forward

What can we conclude from the conference? The challenges faced within doctoral education cannot be separated from debates within business schools and universities at large, such as the overemphasis on academic (4*) publications (cfr. the closed-loop system mentioned by Peter McKiernan in the opening panel) and faculty evaluation systems and career management systems primarily focused on academic output and metrics. Moreover, calls for responsible research – and by extension, doctoral education – are not new, as discussions on impact and science as service to society already date back many years. Within the conference, we tried to dig deeper and discuss how to put this into action and really bring transformative change in doctoral education and business schools at large.

Did we succeed? For sure we shared many ideas and planted seeds to (re)create responsible doctoral programmes for a responsible future, but many challenges remain and this will need time. For instance, to what extent do we prepare doctoral students for a career beyond academia and more broadly to what extent should doctoral programmes do so? Will graduates from our doctoral programmes be the change-makers we need for the transformation we envision in the context of responsible science? Or do we prepare them for more of the same? Should we not have more attention for broader impact and for stakeholder engagement? How to organise for interdisciplinarity in an academic world that still seems to be primarily clustered within disciplines (e.g. journals, expert panels of funding agencies, research groups, course offer,…)? Are we not thinking too much within the box (e.g. the practices that are shared)? Doctoral programmes exist in many different formats and types, so there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. How to take your context into account when organising responsible doctoral education? How can we inspire each other further to create doctoral programmes that are fit for purpose and the future? Finally, did the pandemic accelerate or slow down the responsible research agenda? This needs to be seen, but the answer is probably a nuanced one.

Do you now have the feeling you missed an inspiring event? No worries, as this is not the end of our conversation. I have good news for you. Let’s continue our exchange on the next EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference, taking place from 18-20 May 2022 on the Brussels campus of Vlerick Business School.

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