Digital Higher Degree Research (HDR) Scholarly Support and Community Building

Digital Higher Degree Research (HDR) Scholarly Support and Community Building

Jennifer Rowland (Macquarie University, Australia)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7065-3.ch005
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In this chapter, the development of a digital support system for higher degree research (HDR) student training and development is conversed in the context of the young faculty of medicine at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. First, the case and the issues that need to be addressed in providing digital support to the HDR cohort are discussed. Then, the development of the digital platform is presented. Finally, an overall reflection is made with respect to the effectiveness and future directions in implementing the digital platform with a focus on developing a scholarly community of support for the faculty's higher degree research students, supervisors, and the wider research community.
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What Is The Issue?

Effective support of higher degree research students has become a central priority over recent times. This is underpinned by numerous reports outlining the changing nature of the research sector, with increasing competition for funding and a larger emphasis on building skillsets that can enhance employability for doctoral graduates beyond the confines of the academic sector (Edwards & Roy, 2017; Frick, 2018; McGagh et al., 2016). Coupled with this, students routinely confront a number of challenges during their candidature that may impact their mental health and wellbeing (Pyhältö Toom, Stubb, & Lonka, 2012). Heavy workload, hard study pace, and the experience of little feedback are all documented to impact student experiences (Pyhältö, Stubb, & Lonka, 2009). This issue is compounded in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where pressure is also applied in relation to complex hierarchical structures that become more apparent as students shift from undergraduate into higher-degree-research training (Rowland, 2017). HDR study tends to be more apprenticeship-like in nature, involving greater independence to pursue individually tailored and self-driven research investigations (Lum, 2018).

Supporting students in the HDR space incorporates some unique challenges beyond those confronted at the undergraduate level. The difficultly in providing this support is compounded by the fact that students are working on diverse research topics and tend to originate from a wide variety of backgrounds: nationality; culture; or language. Similarly, students will enter into HDR training from a variety of educational backgrounds. A faculty of medicine, such as FMHS, may host engineers, social scientists, linguists, clinical professionals, allied-health practitioners, biomedical scientists, and more. At the time of writing, the FMHS student cohort originates from 21 countries comprising six continents. Indeed, “diversity, as opposed to consistency, acting as the norm within the postgraduate student population” (Eckersley et al., 2016, p. 5).

Encouraging community engagement to promote wider interest in research disciplines for the purpose of attracting funding and community support is well documented (Syed & Palermo, 2010). It is also well documented that communities of support can promote collaborative practices, improve prolongation of the PhD experience, and prevent dropouts/failure to complete (Pyhältö et al., 2009; Pyhältö et al., 2012). Similarly, the issues that many HDR students face are less prominent in students that identify as being part of a community of peers or of similarly focused professionals (Golde, 2005). However, promoting community building in the FMHS has proven challenging in the context of students pursuing disciplines that comprise extensive laboratory activities, special research facilities, or that work in dispersed environments like clinics and geographically dispersed hospital or lab environments. Traditional practices in medical-research-focused academic departments have involved more face-to-face training, professional, and networking activities. Nonetheless, medical researchers are notoriously time poor, and FMHS student engagement in HDR-specific training and networking activities tends to be intermittent and brief. It is well known that greater frequencies of communication interactions promote a deeper sense of community (Dawson, 2006), thus a mode of interaction beyond direct workshops and social events was needed. Importantly, an avenue was sought through which to engage FMHS HDR students, which might improve their engagement with their wider department and faculty.

Key Terms in this Chapter

BPhil: Bachelor of philosophy.

HDR: Higher degree research.

FMHS: Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

PhD: Doctor of philosophy.

STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

MRes: Master of Research, a two-year, research-training program at Macquarie University that comprises a coursework year and a research year.

iLearn: The Macquarie University brand name for the Moodle learning management system.

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