Developing a more rounded and work-ready PhD graduate

13 August 2012

Dominick Ng: "Communication is vitally important - if you can't explain your work, people won't understand its potential."
Dominick Ng: "Communication is vitally important - if you can't explain your work, people won't understand its potential."

For Fulbright scholar and University of Sydney PhD candidate Dominick Ng there would be a certain irony in completing his degree without adequate communication skills.

"The focus of my PhD is improving the way that computers identify human language, so it would be strange if I improved the computer's communication, but not my own," he said.

"Communication is vitally important - if you can't explain your work, people won't understand its potential. You could miss opportunities to collaborate with and inspire people in and out of your field."

Dominick is part-way through his PhD on ways to improve parsers, software tools that automatically identify syntactic structure in human language. These tools are widely used in speech recognition systems, machine translators, question answering, and document summarisers, and have become increasingly important as the amount of information in our lives grows.

This month he is headed to the US, where as a Fulbright scholar he will spend eight months studying at UC Berkeley.

He is a strong advocate of the University of Sydney's move to increase support for its PhD students by giving them comprehensive training to help them better prepare for their future employment and to support them in necessary skills development. Beginning next year, all PhD candidates will be required to undertake self-assessment and courses to ensure they are competent in a range of skills before they graduate.

"Our aim is to help students produce not only high quality theses, but for them to be high quality researchers who can be effective thinkers and communicators outside their particular disciplines," said Professor Marie Carroll, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs).

The University of Sydney's initiative follows the recent publication of the Australian Government's research workforce strategy - Research Skills for an Innovative Future and advice from groups such as the Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT).

"One of the most sobering pieces of feedback from BHERT was that employers do not regard Australian PhD graduates as being suitable for managerial positions," said Professor Carroll. "They may have expertise in a particular field, but often have very little experience outside that field."

PhD candidates will have the opportunity for career development during their studies. This will involve networking with peers and industry partners, as well as training in issues to do with commercialisation, intellectual property as well as professional conduct and development.

One of the main aims of the Sydney program is that all PhD candidates will be able to demonstrate competency in a range of areas including oral and written communication to both specialist and non-expert audiences. As well as developing interdisciplinary perspectives, other key areas of training will cover research integrity, professional responsibility, project management and the sharing of knowledge. It will also cover aspects of professional conduct specific to each discipline such as the ethical use of surveys, animal experimentation and field work.

Dominick said he is not sure whether his study will lead him into academia or industry but he would like the skill-set to achieve in either domain.

"Not everyone who does a PhD will want to go into management, but having that skill set as part of your degree will hugely benefit those who do," he said.

"You can get through your PhD without talking to anyone but your supervisor, but that drastically limits your field of vision. It means you don't have the benefit of collaborating with people who might have a different point of view or academic experience.

"I think the days of the world moving forward one mad scientist in a basement at a time are long gone."

From 2013 all new PhD candidates will be required to work with their supervisors to identify any gaps they have in the agreed set of competencies and to undertake specific training courses in these areas. Annual assessments will monitor a candidate's progress.

Dominick said he appreciates this aspect of the program as self-evaluation can be forgotten as one gets deeper into their study. "It will hopefully mean PhD students reflect on our strengths and weaknesses as well as our research," he said.

"Future employers, whether in industry, the commercial world or in academia will be confident that someone with a University of Sydney PhD will be a well-rounded, aware and work-ready graduate", said Professor Carroll.

"We are keen to provide a research training experience of world-class quality and to ensure our researchers are supported and fulfilled in their careers."

The University of Sydney PhD training program will commence in the 2013 academic year and a pilot program will run in the second semester of 2012 in the Faculty of Engineering and IT and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to help identify the particular training needs required.

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