The Government of Ireland closed a call for consultation on the subject of state support for PhD researchers on 12 March 2023. This was part of the government’s overall Impact 2023 Strategy, specifically the pillar ‘Talent at the Heart of the R&I Ecosystem’. As a cross-border, state funded research centre, CEPH responded to this call and outlined the benefits of a properly funded and resourced institution for PhD candidates, as well as the benefits of cross-border and international dynamics across such institutions.
CEPH identified three key areas where similar institutes could benefit PhD candidates in Ireland:
Isolation: Ireland, given its small size, has a smaller doctoral student cohort than other nations. This compounds the inherent isolation felt by PhD students. While a post-Covid digital age may make networking easier, the burden to establish these networks often rests entirely on the shoulders of the student. Budgetary constraints, high costs of living, or teaching workloads can all restrict these efforts.
A cross-border multi-university initiative ensures that the graduate student’s experience involves multiple academic networks and allows the student to expand beyond their research and host institution’s walls.
Within CEPH, we are hiring postgraduates with the expectation that they will spend at least part of their term of study in both of our host institutions. Additionally, all our students will enjoy supervisory teams drawn up from both Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. This encourages a broader academic portfolio, and allows PhD candidates to network across two academic systems, diversifying their experience for the job market
Employability: One of the most substantial challenges presented to postgraduate students in Ireland is a lack of appropriate post-PhD employment. Just 67% of Arts and Humanities Postgraduates in 2020 found full-time employment in relevant professions after nine months. Social Sciences fared better, but only 80% of graduates in this field found employment in the same timeframe (https://hea.ie/statistics/graduate-outcomes-data-and-reports/graduate-outcomes-2020/postgraduate-research-graduates/). Cross-border and international initiatives offer an opportunity to broaden the horizons of our postgraduate candidates, and secure a pipeline of researchers into the Irish workforce. By offering the student as wider array of experiences, and encouraging policy or outreach-driven research, centres such as CEPH can improve the postgraduate student’s employment prospects both within and beyond academia.
Recruitment and Retention: There is an expectation that PhD candidates will, after graduating, take their talents elsewhere, typically overseas. This ‘brain drain’ is a problem for Irish universities and much of their best talent finds employment elsewhere. As a cross-border multi-university centre, we believe inter-institutional partnerships and international cooperation via the creation of formal postgraduate networks is the best way to overcome these challenges. The flow of postgraduates out of the country can be arrested by offering the kind of multi-institutional experience asked of academic candidates within the three-to-four years of a PhD programme, rather than waiting until their postdoctoral career stage. The research power associated with a multi-university centre also helps to attract talent from overseas that would normally not have considered Ireland as a destination for PhD studies.
Given Ireland’s small size and comparatively small institutions, in tandem with limited public funding, any one individual university will not have the scope or scale to combat these issues on their own. A centre such as CEPH represents a model by which a PhD candidate will gain the most positive experience and return on investment. This cannot be achieved without proper funding from the Irish Government.
Wider ramifications and benefits:
The kind of cohort-driven, collaborative PhD structure suggested by CEPH would allow the following tangential benefits:
Relevancy of research: A centre which has ambitions beyond research, such as dissemination, outreach and policymaking, will encourage their PhD candidates bear the wider picture in mind during their academic career. Academics can tend to isolate their research from wider society’s interests. By incorporating the policy-driven objectives of the parent centre, the scholar is more likely to adopt a broader mindset. PhD candidates will be encouraged to broaden their experiences beyond the traditional academic conference or seminar.
Fostering North-South relations: By cooperating with institutions both North and South of the border, collaborative research centres help foster a shared understanding of the state of research fields. Students are encouraged to engage in outreach activities among the student population, educating younger generations and breaking down deep-rooted divides on the island.
Fostering international relations: As Ireland is one of two English-speaking members of the European Union, a unique opportunity presents itself to develop research hubs which would foster connections with European universities. This would undo the insularity which can be experienced by PhD candidates in Ireland, and build strong, intellectually profitable and mutually beneficial research networks across the continent.
CEPH is an exemplar of the benefits of a well-funded and properly supported research centre, and it is important that the Government recognises the benefits that such centres can have for their early-career researchers.