PhD Opportunity: What next? Student identities and career intentions in Life Sciences
Department of Life Sciences and the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship
This is a joint project of the Department of Life Sciences and the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship (CHERS) at Imperial College London. The 3.5 year fully-funded position, includes a tax-free stipend of approximately £17,285 per year, fees, and resources for research needs. The student will be located in the South Kensington Campus of Imperial College London. The project will be supervised by Dr. Camille Kandiko Howson (CHERS), Dr Tiffany Chiu (CHERS) and Dr Magda Charalambous (Life Sciences). The student will meet regularly with all supervisors.
The closing date for applications is 29 October 2021 and the start date will be by mutual agreement. Applications should be made online.
PhD Student Call: What next? Student identities and career intentions in Life Sciences
This PhD project aims to explore student disciplinary and professional identities in the STEM context, focusing on perceptions and educational experiences of undergraduate university students in life sciences.
This project intends to address concerns about students’ professional trajectories and career intentions, and how well the curriculum supports the development of their professional identities. A focus will be how underrepresented students position themselves and their future selves as well as being positioned by others in STEM fields. The goal of this project is to contribute to a diverse and inclusive community in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London and beyond, in conjunction with the ongoing Curriculum Review process. Further aims are to develop successful support interventions to enhance the professional trajectories and career intentions in all students from different backgrounds that can be rolled out across College to foster a strong and inclusive community. To widen the scope this doctoral project and for comparative perspectives, a multi-institutional approach will also be encouraged.
There are high levels of government interest in promoting education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields to support future generations of scientists and innovators in STEM careers (BEIS 2020). The Secretary of State for Education noted: ‘making sure that the next generation has the scientific skills to meet the world’s needs – from developing green technologies to curing illnesses – couldn’t be more important’. Although there is large scale investment in STEM education, there is little horizontal alignment of credentials and occupations (Behle 2020) in the UK and job skills are acquired through a range of disciplinary fields of study (DBIS 2015).
While education, research and development in STEM are promoted for their innovation and economic potential, there are wide variations in students’ experiences, well-being, skill development and graduate outcomes across STEM fields (HESA 2021a). The independent Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability addressed concerns about variable outcomes across STEM disciplines. A particular area the report addressed was the graduate outcomes in biological sciences (an umbrella term for students in life sciences fields), noting that graduates were lacking ‘soft skills’, work experience, business or commercial awareness and mathematical skills, with a recommendation to further explore what lies behind the outcomes and what steps would improve the situation (Wakeham 2016). The report indicated that for those students with the skills and potential, the biological (i.e. life) sciences jobs market is diverse. However, this diversity can mean that career opportunities and pathways are not always clear for students and graduates.
Responses to the Wakeham Review included critiques that the Review did not address the role of diverse student characteristics or profiles spread unevenly across STEM fields, including the higher proportion of female students in life sciences. For over two decades women have gained more PhDs in life sciences than men (HESA 2021b). Although life sciences may be feminised in a numerical sense, issues of inequality remain, shown through students’ experiences and progression in academia (Bebbington 2002).
PhD Project: Student identities and career intentions in life sciences
These findings and thoughts are echoed by those of the Supporting the Identity Development of Underrepresented Students (SIDUS) project at Imperial exploring student identities in STEM, which suggests student perceptions of a hierarchy within STEM disciplines, with life sciences being perceived as the easiest one. We wonder whether students’ views and experiences of their disciplines might have implications for their development of disciplinary and professional identities. Our life sciences students also seem to have less clear views of their perceived future selves and their professional trajectories. As noted in the SIDUS project: ‘Our students have raised concerns about the limited career advice from their tutors and departments, who seem more adept at providing opportunities for future researchers and academics in the specific discipline’. Furthermore, a student commented from an Imperial College Union report (2021) ‘I did not receive much advice on career progression and opportunity hunting [from my personal tutor]’.
Some of the concerns of the Wakeham review were addressed by the Imperial Department of Life Sciences curriculum review started in 2020, which specifically targeted alumni, employers and students desire for more quantitative and programming skills, and also authentic activities and assessments such as more project and teamwork. In the light of the changed curriculum, this study also intends to explore the effectiveness of the curriculum changes for students, and how this may vary across student characteristics.
Also, existing studies have revealed that ‘forms of capitals, in particular, social and cultural, are a crucial component in facilitating how successful graduates are able to negotiate access to the labour market and its opportunity structures’ (Tomlinson and Jackson, 2021: 886). We wonder to what extent the opportunities and resources are taken up by students from underrepresented groups (e.g., minority ethnic/racial backgrounds, first-generation, mature, widening participation) and what factors might have manifested or inhibited the disciplinary and professional identity formation for underrepresented students.
With the life sciences being a fast moving and rapidly advancing field, students may struggle to keep up with current career potentials and opportunities, particularly for those just completing undergraduate degrees. For those who graduated from life sciences going on to professional occupations, there is a 37% difference between postgraduate level and undergraduate student employment rates (HESA 2020), which raises questions about the preparedness of undergraduate life sciences students for the labour market.
This has led to following indicative research questions that the PhD student can develop further:
Main research question: What is the role of the curriculum in supporting the professional trajectories and career intentions of life sciences students?
Sub-question: How do these intentions vary for underrepresented students?
Sub-question: How do these intentions vary across student socio-demographic characteristics?
Sub-question: How does a perceived hierarchy of STEM disciplines influence student perceptions of their future selves and professional identity?
Towards the end of the project, we hope to be able to make informed choices of what curriculum interventions and support should be offered and to prioritise that with the greatest impact on supporting professional trajectories and career intentions of life sciences students. This project will be encouraged to consider collecting data across institutions to broaden the scope of the research. During these stages, publication and dissemination of the work will be frequent to build a wider research network.
The final outputs of this PhD project will be a series of research papers and book chapters that will detail a strategic approach to supporting professional trajectories and career intentions of Life Sciences students. The PhD student will develop the wide range of quantitative and qualitative research skills necessary to undertake this project. The researcher will gain significant experience of the relevant teaching and learning theories used in undergraduate life sciences degree programmes and wider student experience, particularly in developing and supporting a diverse and inclusive environment. This will be of great interest to the STEM community, the employers of life sciences graduates and academics at Imperial and other institutions.
Academic entry requirements
BSc (Hons) with at least 2:1 or equivalent in a relevant life sciences subject with a technical background plus demonstrate a strong interest in education. Teaching experience is desirable. Imperial College London English language requirements apply (where applicable). See https://www.imperial.ac.uk/study/pg/apply/requirements/english/ for details.
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