Students socialising in the Library Cafe, South Kensington campus

Research by the Professional Development Unit (PDU) underpins the provision of the Graduate School's professional skills programme and the enhancing of the student experience

The Graduate School is responsible for an award-winning and internationally renowned programme of transferable skills development. 

Working closely with the Graduate Students' Union (GSU), and with staff from across the College, the Graduate School's Professional Development Unit (PDU) is tasked with developing new initiatives and ensuring the quality and relevance of everything we do. All activity is underpinned by an educational research programme, specifically focused on the postgraduate student experience.

The outcomes of the PDU's research projects feed directly into the skills development programme and have also informed training for supervisors. The Graduate School and the PDU also engage with College committees in order to support targeted improvements.

Research projects

A summary of the impact of our research

Impact of Research
YearDisseminationProjectSummaryPractical Impact of ProjectComments
2015 Journal Paper in Studies in Higher Education Doctoral researchers' views on entrepreneurship: ranging from ‘a responsibility to improve the future’ to ‘a dirty word’ Understanding of PhD attitudes and comparison with Tsinghua University (Beijing) students. New data used on FUMO course.New summer school developed.Valuable insight to inform future entrepreneurship training. Partly externally funded by British Council / PMI2 mone
2014 University of Oxford Presentation Well-being Exploring the wellbeing of doctoral researchers  Included in RSD and in redesign of stress management & motivation and independence workshops.Included in induction / welcome packs. Was strongly supported by students’ union and helped build relationship with them.
2014 Journal Paper in Studies in Higher Education Journal Article 2014 Beyond knowledge and skills: rethinking the development of professional identity during the STEM doctorate Changing nature of the STEM PhD and impact of policy. Helped College respond to and develop policies with a better understanding of impact upon students. Research by our PhD student links local environment with the wider policy context of the STEM PhD
2013 Journal Paper in International Journal of Researcher Development Understanding, attitude and environment: The essentials for developing creativity in STEM researchers Investigating the factors which facilitate creative research in STEM disciplines. Good practice guides for PhDs, postdocs and for supervisors / Pis and workshop developed. Externally funded by Vitae / Innovate grant 2009
2012 Journal paper in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education A new approach to evaluating the well-being of PhD research students Identified the factors which most adversely impact on the well-being of Imperial’s PhD students. Included in RSD and in redesign of stress management & motivation and independence workshops.Included in induction / welcome packs. Was strongly supported by students’ union and helped build relationship with them.
2012 Conference presentation at IOE Centre for Higher Education Studies  2012 PhD in the knowledge economy  Changing nature of the STEM PhD and impact of policy.  Helped College respond to and develop policies with a better understanding of impact upon students.  Research by our PhD student links local environment with the wider policy context of the STEM PhD
2011 Conference presentation at IOE Centre for Higher Education Studies  2011 PhD in the knowledge economy Changing nature of the STEM PhD and impact of policy.  Helped College respond to and develop policies with a better understanding of impact upon students.  Research by our PhD student links local environment with the wider policy context of the STEM PhD
2011 European Conference on Educational Research 2011 PhD in the knowledge economy Changing nature of the STEM PhD and impact of policy.  Helped College respond to and develop policies with a better understanding of impact upon students.  Research by our PhD student links local environment with the wider policy context of the STEM PhD 
2011 Vitae Good practice guides Creative research Investigating the factors which facilitate creative research in STEM disciplines.   Good practice guides for PhDs, postdocs and for supervisors / Pis and workshop developed.  Externally funded by Vitae / Innovate grant 2009 
2011 SRHE 2011 Conference presentation Research group micro-climates Identified factors which can help overseas students in particular adjust to research life at Imperial.Funded by EDU Teaching Research Grant  Used in EDU training of new supervisors at Imperial.  Funded by EDU Teaching Research Grant 
2010 Studies in Higher Education Journal Article 2010 Research group micro-climates Identified factors which can help overseas students in particular adjust to research life at Imperial.Funded by EDU Teaching Research Grant  Used in EDU training of new supervisors at Imperial.  Funded by EDU Teaching Research Grant 
2010 Journal article 2010 Evaluation of skills development programme (SKIPIED)  Evaluation of skills development programme as a whole by end-stage PhD students.  Further evidence of sustained positive effect of training. Helpful in developing programme to meet needs of all students.  Highly praised by RCUK in their Roberts’ review, Featured on RCUK website 
2010 SRHE & conference 2010 Employability and Entrepreneurship  Understanding of PhD attitudes and comparison with Tsinghua University (Beijing) students.   New data used on FUMO course.New summer school developed.Valuable insight to inform future entrepreneurship training.  Partly externally funded by British Council / PMI2 mone 
2010 Vitae conferences 2010 Employability and Entrepreneurship  Understanding of PhD attitudes and comparison with Tsinghua University (Beijing) students.   New data used on FUMO course.New summer school developed.Valuable insight to inform future entrepreneurship training.  Partly externally funded by British Council / PMI2 mone 
2010 Journal paper in Studies in Higher Education 2010 International staff/student  Acculturation of overseas students and staff in UK universities.  Also used by EDU on new supervisor training.  Externally funded by CETL grant 
2010 Book chapter 2010 International staff/student  Acculturation of overseas students and staff in UK universities.  Also used by EDU on new supervisor training.   
2010 SRHE Conference 2010 PhD in the knowledge economy Acculturation of overseas students and staff in UK universities. Also used by EDU on new supervisor training.  
2010 SRHE conference 2010 PRES 2008 (3) Transitions from work Changing nature of the STEM PhD and impact of policy. Will help College respond to and develop new policies with a better understanding of impact upon students. Research by our PhD student links local environment with the wider policy context of the STEM PhD
2009 SRHE Conference 2009 International staff/student  Investigation of challenges faced by those who work and then return to do PhD study. Guide written for those who return to study after working – to support them in this transition. Data from PRES 2008 survey
2009 SRHE conference 2009 Research group micro-climates  Identified factors which can help overseas students in particular adjust to research life at Imperial. Used in EDU training of new supervisors at Imperial. Funded by EDU Teaching Research Grant
2009 SRHE conference 2009 Well-being  Identified the factors which most adversely impact on the well-being of Imperial’s PhD students. Included in RSD and in redesign of stress management & motivation and independence workshops.Included in induction / welcome packs. Was strongly supported by students’ union and helped build relationship with them.
2009 Vitae conference 2009 Evaluation of skills development programme (SKIPIED) Evaluation of skills development programme as a whole by end-stage PhD students.
 
Further evidence of sustained positive effect of training. Helpful in developing programme to meet needs of all students. Highly praised by RCUK in their Roberts’ review, Featured on RCUK website
2008 Journal article Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 2008 Evaluation of skills development course (SKIPI) Established the effectiveness of the RSD in developing students’ skills and changing attitudes to training.   Used on RSD to demonstrate value of course. Included in induction events.Helpful in winning “hearts and minds” of academic staff.  Also showed variation in views e.g. men vs. women, overseas vs. home students 
2008 internal PRES 2008 (1) Supervision  Analysis of satifaction with supervision in different departments.   Data shared with departments via SEC to improve supervision standards.  Data from PRES 2008 survey 
2008 internal PRES 2008 (2)Gender differences  Investigation of areas of difference due to gender.   Input to ongoing development of a new “gender issues” workshop.  Data from PRES 2008 survey 
2007 Book chapter 2007 Evaluation of skills development course (SKIPI)  Established the effectiveness of the RSD in developing students’ skills and changing attitudes to training.   Used on RSD to demonstrate value of course. Included in induction events.Helpful in winning “hearts and minds” of academic staff.  Also showed variation in views e.g. men vs. women, overseas vs. home students 
 
Summary of the table's contents

Doctoral Researchers' Views on Entrepreneurship

In 2012, Imperial College London and Tsinghua University undertook an evaluation of researchers views to entrepreneurship.Informal evidence of differing views on entrepreneurship between Chinese and British doctoral students prompted a quantitative and qualitative investigation, designed to generate a fuller insight. The findings confirmed that Chinese students were more likely to agree that research should contribute to economic success and to view entrepreneurship as a natural means of doing so, as part of their ‘responsibility to improve the future’. In contrast, the British students' views were less positive, with one participant associating entrepreneurship with commerce and a ‘dirty word’. The study explores the factors contributing to this range of views and implications for researchers and universities. It concludes with recommendations to produce more informed and proactive engagement of researchers with entrepreneurialism.

Please click here in order to read the full paper.

Well-being and the student experience

PhD Well-being Survey

With support from the Imperial College Union and GSA, research was carried out into the wellbeing of PhD students at Imperial College London 2009 followed by a second survey in 2014. From the 2009 results, where 1202 PhD students responded, the top three most troublesome items were:

The 2014 is currently being analysed. It is crucial to understand that all researchers experience setbacks, confusion and difficulties in their work. Newer researchers often experience a loss of confidence at these times. Instead, it is helpful to realise that such problems are a normal part of research life and to be proactive in getting appropriate support and feedback and in managing stress levels. The links below provide information, questions to consider and some guidance.

Well-being information for PhD students [pdf]

Well being information for supervisors [pdf]

You may find the Stress Management Workshop helpful if you are experiencing any of the difficulties mentioned above.

Transitions from Work to the PhD

This project investigates the particular challenges faced by those returning to PhD study after working full time. Initial data has shown that such students are less confident of timely completion of their degree, experience greater financial strain and enjoy less support from family and friends. The findings will inform efforts to better support this group of students at Imperial (about 25% of our PhD students). This work is ongoing.

Find out more - Making the transition from work to PhD [pdf]

The PhD in the Knowledge Economy

This project sought to include STEM PhD students in the on going debate over their place in the knowledge economy. The UK’s political and business leaders view STEM PhD students as standing at the heart of the UK’s growing knowledge economy because they possess the highly valuable STEM expertise and skills needed for a model of economic growth underpinned by knowledge flow and technological innovation. The knowledge economy articulates a new vision of the use and value of science, and supposes that the scientific community will relinquish its historic distance from the interested agendas of the political and business communities. Data were collected over two years - using focus groups, an online survey and depth-interviews - to examine STEM PhD students' awareness of, and attitudes toward, the knowledge economy. The project concluded that while STEM PhD students are aware of the knowledge economy, their understandings of it are poorly informed; which leads them to develop high-risk career strategies, founded upon outdated ideas of science and its relationship with society. We advocate that the STEM PhD ought to be reformed so as to allow the space for students to think more deeply about the context of contemporary science, and their futures as scientific researchers. We are in the process of refining these reform proposals, to be disseminated through academic publication and recommendations to College management.

Re-evaluating doctoral researchers' well-being: what has changed in five years?

Hargreaves, C.E.a*, De Wilde, J.Pa., Juniper, Bb. and Walsh, Eai.
Graduate School, Imperial College London, 327 Sherfield Building, South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ, UK.
Work and Well‐being Ltd. 17 Osprey Quay, Emsworth, Hants PO10 8BZUK

Ms Elaine Walsh, Independent Educational Consultant from October 2014
*Corresponding author. Email: caroline.hargreaves@imperial.ac.uk

Well-being is a key indicator of social progress and is used internationally for policy formation and economic development. Doctoral researchers are strategic contributors to the knowledge and innovation led economy and their well-being throughout the doctorate therefore warrants attention. This research intensive university carried out the first well-being study of doctoral researchers using a clinically approved methodology (Impact Analysis) in 2009. Five years later the exercise was repeated to identify any changes.

With 1248 respondents to the 2014 survey (~40% response rate), overall wellbeing scores remained satisfactory, yet levels of stress and frustration related to research, as well as career uncertainty, had increased compared to the earlier study. Well-being was also lower for women and for later stage doctoral researchers. Recommendations emerged to enhance doctoral well-being and contribute to both the research experience and institutional development.

Please click here to read the full paper - Well Being Paper.pdf

International Programmes and Developments

Improving Support for International Staff & Students

International Students: This project examined the major difficulties identified by new overseas PhD students at Imperial College. It resulted in a continuum model of research group microclimates [pdf]. As a result of this, the training of supervisors at Imperial was modified.

For more information see:
Walsh E, A model of research group microclimate: environmental and cultural factors affecting the experiences of overseas research students in the UK, Studies in Higher Education, 2010, Vol:35

View a poster summarising this work on research group micro-climates [pdf]

International Staff: A study study was carried out to investigate the experiences of academic acculturation of a group of Chinese academic staff in two research-intensive UK universities. This revealed different perceptions of academic practice in the UK and China. Acculturation was found to be dependent upon:

For further information, please see the following publications,

Jiang X, Di Napoli R, Borg M, et al, Becoming and being an academic: The perspectives of Chinese staff in two research-intensive UK universities, Studies in Higher Education, 2010, Vol:35

Borg M, Maunder R, Jiang X, et al, International students and academic acculturation: the role of relationships in the doctoral process., ln:Internationalisation: The Student Voice, Editor(s): Jones, 2010, ISBN:978-0-415-87128-0

Employability and Entrepreneurship Research

This work was partly funded by the British Council (PMI2) and was conducted as we designed the Employability and Entrepreneurship summer school 2010. Research was carried out into the views of PhD students at Imperial College London and Tsinghua Univeristy, Beijing (ongoing) Key findings:

Find out more about this research

Impact of the International Summer Schools

This research focuses on our international summer schools. Both early- and late-stage Imperial College London PhD students have the opportunity to take part in research replacements and residential courses at universities in Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing with doctoral students from NTU, NUS, HKU, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Tsinghua. Students who attended the courses express increased interest in international collaborations, spending time abroad and cultural understanding.

View a poster summarising this work on global skills for researchers [pdf]

Impact
We have anecdotal evidence of both establishment of new research partnerships and the strengthening of existing collaborations resulting from participation in the international summer schools. The project seeks to capture more information about these and to identify the factors most likely to yield productive results.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of Professional Skills development activities

Evaluating the effectiveness of skills development activities on the RSD course

In 2007 and 2008 research was published which demonstrated the positive effect of the Research Skills Development (RSD) course on the skills levels of doctoral students. Results were derived from questionnaires completed both before and after the course. Key findings:

For more information about this research see:

Evaluation of the transferable skills programme as a whole

Conducted in 2009, this research focussed on the views of late stage PhD students in Science, Engineering and Medicine at Imperial. Key findings:

For more information about this research see:

RCUK review of researcher development activities

In April 2010, RCUK visited the five UK universities who had received the most funding for researcher development activities. You can see an extract of their report here:

“The skills programme for PGRs is excellent. The Panel were very pleased to see that evaluation of the skills development programme has been undertaken throughout, allowing for evidence-based policy making, and convincing academic staff of the value of this training. The clear leadership of and advocacy for the programme from a high level within the university, and the systematic approach to quality assurance and evaluation (which were used to continually improve the programme), were particular strengths of the management of the programme.&rdquo

For further information, please see the RCUK website, which has a summary report of all 5 visits.

Find out more: Poster - Impact of Professional skills programme [pdf]

Creativity in STEM research

This Vitae Innovate funded project investigated the factors that facilitate creativity in STEM academic research environments. More than 30 interviews were carried out with PhD students, postdocs and supervisors/principal investigators. 

The outputs of this project include three Good Practice Guides, which you may download below: