Research and the real world

October 2015

 

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Internship programmes for postgraduate students align with New Zealand’s tertiary education strategy as they help connect the dots between postgraduate education and the workplace. Yet where is the funding to support such initiatives? JUDE BARBACK investigates.

Research real worldElizabeth Hammond’s PhD took on new meaning when an internship gave her research some ’real world’ context. The University of Auckland doctoral student, who is investigating how best to select an embryo for transfer to the uterus so a patient has the best chance of having a baby, was given the opportunity to shadow clinical embryologists and learn about technical IVF procedures in a three-month internship at Fertility Associates.

“Being closely related to my PhD, the internship added real-world skills to a solid base of theory and research,” says Hammond. “This practical experience helped me to understand the wider context of my PhD research, exposing new areas of importance.”

Hammond’s internship was part of a pilot internship programme run by The University of Auckland, which places PhD students with employers with mutual research interests. It is the first time the university has arranged internships for students at PhD level.

 

Auckland’s PhD internship pilot

Catherine Stephens, manager of the university’s Career Development and Employment Services (CDES), says the internships are an opportunity for PhD candidates to explore the linkages between their studies and the world of work.

“It allows PhD students to develop the soft skills all employers are looking for and showcases the contribution PhD candidates can make to employers,” she says.

Stephens believes that no matter what level of study you are at, it is important to think about making a successful transition to the next stage. It was on this premise the university decided to pilot a postgraduate internship programme.

The pilot was kept small and manageable with clear parameters. It was geared specifically towards PhD students who had gone straight through school and university and had spent very little time in the workplace.

Stephens says they’ve been impressed with the outcomes for the students selected for the pilot. 

“They learned so much about themselves in the process, and brought back so much to their supervisors.”

However, valuable lessons have been learned from the pilot. 

Stephens says they now realise the importance of getting supervisors on board, so that they are supportive of the internship, rather than viewing it as a distraction from the student’s studies.

They are keen to introduce more flexibility into the internship programme going forward, so they are a rolling and ongoing initiative. Internships would ideally be part of a doctoral skills programme which allows students to participate in an internship at different levels and different times so that it better suited their studies, their lives and the employers.

Stephens says they are also keen to encourage internships in areas outside of the specific study area. 

“Students are focused in terms of what they think they can do. In the UK, students are encouraged to do internships outside of their area of study.”

She points to business consulting firms as an example.

“They take graduates from a range of disciplines. They are more interested in the skills and capabilities the graduate is bringing to the table.The degree might open the door, but it’s the skills you bring with it that allow you to walk through it.”

 

A growing trend

The University of Auckland isn’t the only institution introducing programmes that provide opportunities for collaboration. Indeed, the concept is flourishing well internationally, with Australian and British universities leading the way in postgraduate internships.

Many New Zealand universities have already incorporated internships into their undergraduate courses and, increasingly, are doing so in postgraduate courses.  

A handful of Massey University students studying for a Master of International Security degree, for example, have been placed into internships with government agencies, including the New Zealand Police, Customs, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Otago Polytechnic’s Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education (GDTE) is an example of a qualification that fully incorporates internships into the study component. Students with the requisite qualifications and experience teach on one of the polytech’s programmes and complete study through online course work, research, assignments, tutorials and workshops. There are no large-scale lectures at set times, so study times are flexible and negotiated cooperatively between the facilitator, the school and the student.  

The University of Waikato’s Dr Karsten Zegwaard recently won an award for his efforts in cooperative and work-integrated education. His research focus is in the areas of work placement preparation, student self-efficacy, professional identity development, and professional ethics and workplace values. Zegwaard says work experience opportunities grant students a learning opportunity that can be transformative in their thinking about their study discipline and careers they may choose to pursue. 

“It’s an exciting time to be involved in work placement programmes, both for students and educators.”

 

Funding shortfall

Postgrad internship programmes are in line with New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–2019, in which Priority 1 is ”delivering skills for industry”.

The Ministry of Education’s website states that “more explicit cooperation” is needed between industry and TEOs (tertiary education organisations) about the types of skills that are most needed, and how best to develop them. 

“TEOs need to create opportunities for industry involvement in planning and delivering education,”reads the website.

However, Stephens says more funding is needed to help create such opportunities. She says there are academic scholarships and grants available in the science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects, and points to Callaghan Innovation’s careers grants as a great initiative. 

“However, if you’re an arts grad, there’s not a lot out there.”

Stephens believes there is more funding directed to supporting education-industry transitions at secondary school and sub-degree levels.

 “There is an awful lot of money invested into this area at the schools level – into vocational pathways, Gateway programmes, trades academies and so on – but a real gap in understanding and resourcing at the tertiary level, and especially the postgraduate level.”

Indeed, there are a number of government initiatives aimed at improving the transition from secondary education to the workplace that support Stephens’ stance. The Youth Guarantee initiative, for example, includes trades academies, both school-based and tertiary-based, which provide a transition programme for year 11–13 secondary school students. Similarly, Gateway programmes enable schools to provide senior students (year 11 and above) with opportunities to access structured workplace learning. Vocational pathways have also been introduced to improve learners’ ability to move through education and into jobs. The 

New Zealand Apprenticeships scheme – which has replaced the Modern Apprenticeship programme – provides a vocational pathway into an occupation, with a dual focus on the theoretical and practical aspects of the job. 

Tim Fowler, chief executive of the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) says the TEC is “very supportive” of internships programmes at all levels.

“The TEC encourages universities to offer internships or other working relationships as part of their courses. Typically these are in the STEM-related subjects – engineering, computer science and so on,” says Fowler.

The TEC does not directly fund internships. Instead, universities are required to use the Student Achievement Component (SAC) funding that TEC provides to fund any internship component offered as part of those SAC-funded courses and programmes.

There are a few exceptions. For example, some government funding is provided for the new ICT graduate schools to deliver industry-focused education and research that builds connections between tertiary education providers and high-tech firms. 

“Otherwise, universities are expected to make provision for this within existing funding. Many already do, for example through research and development agreements in which postgraduate and master’s-level students work with companies,” says Fowler.

Fowler says discussions with universities about their investment plans give the TEC the opportunity to encourage initiatives like internships.

Career development benchmarks have also been provided to TEOs to help them self-review and evaluate their own career programmes and services.

However, this doesn’t solve the problem of insufficient funding in this area. 

Stephens says European universities will typically have huge teams in place to support career services. By contrast, The University of Auckland offers free career services to students for three years after they graduate. 

“That’s 80,000 students. And we have just 12 staff,” she says.

 

Preparing students and educating employers

Stephens says one of the main challenges faced by career service departments is educating employers about the value of postgraduates, particularly those with doctorates. 

She says employers are often happy to take master’s students but are more cautious when it comes to PhD graduates, possibly due to a perception that they have become very specialised in their field of study.  

Stephens says that is why they need to showcase the value that PhD grads can add. 

“More importantly, we need to support the student so they can demonstrate what value they can add.”

Director of research training at Australian National University (ANU) Dr Inger Mewburn agrees.

“People talk about PhDs being poor communicators. I don’t think they’re poor communicators at all. They have just adapted their communication to the culture of academia and not to the world of business. We have to de-programme them from the academic cult,” she says wryly. 

The other area of preparing the student involves equipping them with knowledge about their future chosen industry. The Government has increased information on employment outcomes, to aid students at all levels in making decisions about where, what, and to what level to study.

Publications such as Moving on up: What young people earn after their tertiary education and the 2014 Occupation Outlook report have improved information about potential wages and employment opportunities from study. Students can download the Occupational Outlook app to get an overview of job demand, income levels and training requirements for 50 different career options.

Students have been able to compare earnings by qualification and field of study at national level on Careers New Zealand’s website since 2013, and from 2017 all universities, wānanga and polytechnics will be required to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas. The Government is also introducing Rate My Qualification next year, which will let employers provide direct feedback to tertiary providers, and students about the qualifications that employers value.

Such information will certainly help manage students’ expectations of the workplace. However, it is no substitute for postgraduate internship programmes that allow the student a real taste of the industry and allow the industry a chance to gain confidence in a future employee. Such internships programmes will undoubtedly help to address the gap between higher tertiary education and industry – but it seems more funding is needed to match Government’s enthusiasm for these programmes.

Which tertiary education providers are preferred by employers?

From 2017 students will be able to see which tertiary education providers are preferred by employers when the employment status and earnings of all tertiary graduates are required to be published.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said the new requirement will help provide better information to assist students’ decisions.

“We know that students and their families consider many things when deciding what to study, and where. But we know that students expect their tertiary study will get them a job and improve their career prospects. As New Zealand continues to rapidly develop a more highly skilled economy, it is more important than ever for students to consider carefully their tertiary study options and future career options.”

Joyce says the provider-level data will allow students to see if employers prefer graduates from particular providers.

However Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, says it will be as easy for this exercise to mislead and confuse as it will be for it to guide and inform.

“The concept is good but the way it is implemented will make or break this. The Government invests a little over $3 billion a year of taxes into tertiary education and students supplement this with fees and years spent in study and not in employment.”

He says that while it makes sense for students to have access to information on the quality and likely outcomes from this investment in time and money, he is keen to ensure the advice doesn’t just treat all education providers as the same.

“For example, most universities, polytechnics and institutes of technology and wānanga offer commerce and management programmes. Some are very vocationally oriented and others are more academic in nature. Some are being delivered in rural communities and others in large cities with different employment paths and earning potential.”

Whelan says the new data will focus on employment rates and earnings, but not on aspects like lifestyle or wellbeing.

“It can’t account for the different life an accountant or lawyer can look forward to in, say Auckland, Tauranga or Taupo.”

This new data requirement builds on the steps this government has already taken to match tertiary education with labour market needs and provide students with more information to help with their study decisions (see above for details).

The employment status and earnings data is from Statistics New Zealand, and is gathered by matching information on a confidential basis from Inland Revenue with tertiary qualifications data.

Providers will work with education agencies during 2016 on the details of how the information will be published.


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