Previously, it was shown that undergraduate student experience is enhanced by collaborations in teaching between institutions across the 1992 divide (Freestone et al., 2012) and thus postgraduate research experiences were hypothesised to be similarly enhanced. This study investigates the views of Ph.D students regarding collaboration between institutions. Ph.D students from a UK pre-1992 institution, the University of Oxford and from a UK post-1992 institution, Kingston University were randomly selected and semi-structured interviews, questionnaire responses and field notes were used. The opinions with regard to attending two collaborative research institutions were positive and optimistic from both groups, however, the reasoning and opinions differed. Kingston University, being a modern university was perceived by its students to have a more relaxed attitude in its research community. Collaborative institutions were favoured due to the more specialised laboratories however the travel between institutions may be a burden. Ph.D students from the University of Oxford are keen to establish international collaborations to enable more exposure to other laboratories abroad. They consider disadvantages to be about the intellectual property that comes with collaborative ventures. Both the pre- and post-1992 institutions studied mutually agreed that the expanded opportunity to learn additional novel research methods is an asset for the research graduate.
The undergraduate student experience has been shown previously by Freestone et al., (2012) to have been enhanced by a teaching collaboration across the 1992 divide. In this study which spanned a period of five years, the authors reported that Pharmacy students (MPharm) from Kingston University (KU) felt that they benefitted from a joint teaching venture in the physiology and pharmacology elements of their degree programme conducted by academics at St George’s, University of London and KU. A majority of the students expressed positive opinions in interviews and questionnaires and reported that when attending the two different Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), they were presented with a unique but valued learning experience. The teaching team at St George’s, University of London consisted of various primary healthcare practitioners and research-orientated academics which was found to complement well the teaching ethos of the team at KU.
Pre-and post-1992 higher educational institutions in the UK
Educational institutions which were previously polytechnics or colleges prior to 1992 are here classed as post-1992 institutions and examples of these include, KU, Oxford Brookes University and the University of Wolverhampton. On the other hand, more traditional and older universities are here designated as pre-1992 institutions and these include universities such as the University of Oxford, University of Liverpool and St George’s, University of London.
The diverse nature of the teaching materials and institutions involved with the MPharm degree were attractive to the students who appreciated being exposed to a clinical environment when learning the scientific elements of their course. The efficacy of this approach may be implied by the above average performance of KU graduates on the national state pre-registration exam in comparison with graduates from other, more established, schools of pharmacy in England in 2012 (GPhC, 2015).
Recently, it has been hypothesised that this mixed institutional learning environment may also be beneficial in the postgraduate research milieu for doctoral research students who are affiliated with both a pre- and post- 1992 institution. Postgraduate research student experiences during Ph.D programmes may then follow a similar trend to the study by Freestone et al. (2012) following collaboration across different institutions. Such alliances might result in quantifiable benefits via access to high-end instrumentation and enhanced research skills established in a different laboratory. Postgraduate research students at a post-1992 institution such as KU might value the opportunity to access more advanced techniques, research equipment and further expertise from others in a similar field of research.
For students from the post-1992 sector, collaborating with a pre-1992 institution might enhance their chances of producing research publications and timely thesis completions. In addition, carrying out part of the postgraduate research at a pre-1992 institution may maximise and enhance the employability prospects of the postgraduate students. Another advantage for such collaboration might be that the research expenditure for the doctoral student may be shared between institutions and also relieves some of the administrative burden that tends to be attached to the progression of the postgraduate research student.
We aim therefore to investigate this hypothesis with postgraduate research students enrolled in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing from KU, where some students carry out their research in an additional UK institution whilst others are based solely at KU. Furthermore, to explore the views on collaboration of postgraduate students who are already based in pre-1992 institutions, we included the participation of research students from the Department of Pharmacology and the Department of Chemistry from the University of Oxford. Ethical approval for this study was obtained from the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing Research Ethics Committee at KU.
Students were approached either by email or in person and asked if they would like to participate in this study and all of those asked, readily accepted. Semi-structured interviews with opportunistically selected Ph.D students registered at KU (on a collaborative programme with a pre-1992 institution) and University of Oxford (on a collaborative programme with another institution as part of their research) were conducted to gain qualitative insights into the experience and opinions of the research students regarding collaborative ventures.
KU Ph.D students who were not collaborating with a pre-1992 institution were also interviewed for their views of their current research experiences at a post-1992 institution, as well as Oxford Ph.D students who do not collaborate with another institution.
Semi-structured interviews were carried out to eliminate any possibility of interviewer bias (Mitchell and Joley, 2007) and were conducted using a voice recorder at various hours during the day at various suitable locations of the Penrhyn Road campus at Kingston University and the Department of Pharmacology and the Department of Chemistry at Oxford. Written field-notes were made for each interview as previously described (Freestone et al., 2010a, Freestone et al., 2010b, Freestone et al., 2012). The recordings of the semi-structured interviews were transcribed and codes assigned to the data to identify emerging themes and to generate results based on these themes (Murray 2002, Lomas, 2006). The resulting outcomes were triangulated with the data obtained from supplementary questionnaires where participants may provide additional quantitative information to the interviews. The interviews aimed to obtain qualitative information on the research students’ opinions on collaboration between two different institutions during their Ph.D programme.
Collaboration presents opportunities
Altogether, 33 doctoral students participated in this study with approximately equal numbers of male and female participants. Of the 22 students recruited from KU, 11 students were also affiliated with a pre-1992 collaborating institution whereas the other 11 were solely based at KU for the entirety of their research programme. The other 11 students were based at the University of Oxford with 4 researchers currently involved in a collaborative venture.
At KU, the chief supervisor or Director of Studies is the first point of call for the Ph.D students. They are the ones who initiate contact with the collaborators at the pre-1992 institutions for the Ph.D students. It was a common observation that KU supervisors allocate the majority of their time to teaching rather than research. The collaborating partners in the pre-1992 institutions for KU usually become the second and/or third supervisors and provided support to the visiting KU Ph.D student. However, at pre-1992 universities, the supervisors were usually well established researchers, working in close conjunction with Ph.D students and post-doctoral researchers with rather less time spent on teaching than was apparent in the post-1992 context.
All the postgraduate students from KU and the University of Oxford agreed that collaboration between institutions played a vital role in their research experiences as shown by a Wordle diagram (Figure 1). As expected, the words “experience’’ and “research” and “collaboration” were the most popular words used by the research students when being interviewed. However the reasoning behind these opinions differed between the two groups.
Figure 1 Wordle diagram shows the most frequently used words from interviews conducted amongst the Ph.D students. The frequency of words used is shown by the size of the words, where the more frequently a word is used, the larger is the size of the word. “Research” and “experience” are most popular used words which indicates the importance of these matters for the students interviewed.
KU students who collaborate: negative aspects
Collaboration between KU and another research institution (from the pre-1992 sector) was particularly favoured for the more specialised laboratories, more exposure to and support from experts in a specific field of research as well as more opportunities to learn and practise new research methods. The KU research students who were interviewed were carrying out their Ph.Ds in the fields of geology, cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology, microbiology, bio-analysis, oncology, pharmacy practice, chemistry and material sciences. Methods used during their research include calcium imaging, western blotting, syntheses of various compounds and mass spectrometry to name a few. Those from Oxford had studies based on sciences such as cardiovascular pharmacology, neurology, chemistry and biochemistry and employed techniques such as patch-clamp electrophysiology, in vivo experiments and organ bath pharmacology.
However, out of the 11 doctoral students from KU who attended collaborating institutions, eight voiced concern about the length of time taken to travel between sites. This factor was thought not practical or ideal for carrying material such as fresh tissues or cells between laboratories which may not survive very long when being subjected to changes in the external environment (atmosphere or temperature) or sudden agitation. Another minor disadvantage, which was commented on by a small percentage of the collaborating research students, was that when working at the pre-1992 institution, they sometimes felt “excluded” from the working environment and one student even described the surroundings as being “intellectually snobbish”. Pre-1992 institutions were held to have a tendency to exhibit a more traditional approach to the university research experience and have a more conservative working ethos. On the other hand, newer universities seem to have a more relaxed attitude in their research communities. In other words, the post-1992 researchers are less likely to be part of a large research group hence feeling less competition or drive from their colleagues. Furthermore, their supervisors are usually on a busy schedule with their teaching tasks and the research students may therefore feel less pressure in their work. In the case of KU which was previously a polytechnic, it still retains its reputation as a more of a teaching-focussed rather than a research-focussed university.
KU students who collaborate: positive aspects
The opinions with regard to attending two collaborative research institutions were however generally positive and optimistic, despite the few caveats previously mentioned. Collaborative institutions were favoured due to the more specialised and established research being conducted in the laboratories and the expanded opportunity to be able to learn additional novel research methods that may be an asset for the research graduate later on in terms of improving their employability prospects.
All post-1992 research students were keen to be exposed to a more tightly knit and “research focused” environment whereby the majority of the supervising research leads or principal investigators shared an office environment with their Ph.D students or postdoctoral fellows. Post-1992 research students attending affiliated institutions also felt more motivated after seeing how others work and produce in the pre-1992 laboratories. The research groups were perceived to be more involved with one another’s work and there was more of a teamwork spirit. For example, Claire (final year Ph.D student at KU) attends Kings College London as a collaborative venture and observed that “..KCL students are more together as a group..”. She reported that the KCL students with whom she shared the research laboratory, each had a role to play in that each individual experimental task contributed to a targeted paper in mind. This atmosphere within the group tended to speed up the work being done and contributed to papers being published on time.
Also interviewed was Vincenzo (2nd year Ph.D student at KU) who collaborated with the University of Oxford and commented that “..work goes better in Oxford… more motivation there..” and “ …at KU, we don’t always have everything here…”. Students attending post-1992 institutions and who collaborate with pre-1992 universities therefore find it very useful and consider themselves very lucky to have the opportunity to be part of a team where they feel the motivation and inspiration to work harder in their programme of research. In the majority of post-1992 institutions, Ph.D supervisors are not physically connected with the research laboratories as is usually the case in pre-1992 institutions and much of their day-to-day activity is associated with other responsibilities such as teaching or administrative tasks.
Views of KU students who are not part of a collaborative venture
Students based only at KU with no collaborating partners (n = 11), nevertheless showed appreciation of working in a familiar and friendly environment. However concerns were voiced regarding lack of exposure to more advanced techniques and instruments for their research and also being exposed to only a limited view of the research environment. There were comments about instruments which needed to be updated but the limitation was the cost of repair or purchase of a replacement. For example, a 3rd year Pharmaceutics research student at KU commented that there was no immediate replacement for instrumentation breakdown and therefore felt that time was being wasted “..sometimes we have to book the use of a machine…instruments that we have breakdown and the repairs are time-consuming…”.
Furthermore, animal models for physiology or pharmacology research were not available at KU and to do such research, it was necessary to collaborate with a pre-1992 institution where it was guaranteed that experimental animals were available. Doctoral research students tended to find that the usual Monday to Friday working days, are not sufficient to fit in the work they want to carry out, hence they preferred to come in on the weekends or carry on working until late at night. However, restricted access to the laboratory facilities at KU at un-sociable hours was a common complaint from the students. For example, until recently at KU, one had to fill in an out of hours access forms to be entered into the computer system in the security control rooms in order to be granted an extension of access hours to the laboratories and offices. On the other hand, pre-1992 institutions normally allow 24 hour access to the research workplace by the use of individual swipe card access.
Research students at KU feel that they are usually the sole researcher in their specific field and thus may experience a sense of isolation, however those who attend a collaborative institution report of small teams of Ph.D students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians who are working together in a specific field in a much more collaborative manner. Students who are not part of a collaborating enterprise express interests in working at another research laboratory mainly to add variety to their research experience or portfolio as well as to gain new insights into how research is conducted elsewhere. Both students in a collaborative venture and those who conduct their research only at KU agreed that collaboration is more attractive to prospective employers and it would benefit them by enhancing their employability.
Views of the University of Oxford students who are not part of a collaborative venture
The other group of research students from the Department of Pharmacology and the Department of Chemistry at Oxford University were aware and appreciated that they were at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. They work in a sometimes gruelling and often stimulating working environment at the cutting-edge of research. Oxford students who were not already part of a collaborative venture, expressed their interest and keenness in linking with another university. However it was clear that they would prefer to collaborate with institutions with similar reputation as their host institution in terms of research capabilities. Collaborating internationally (Hoekmann et al., 2010, Melin, 1999) would benefit these research students by stretching their abilities in learning novel techniques in another laboratory, to meet and network with scientists with an international reputation in another working environment and also to make themselves known on an international platform. A few disadvantages were noted by these students during the interviews, whereby they were concerned about the problems of new ideas and result outcomes being claimed by other scientists in a competitive collaborating laboratory. Other concerns for these pre-1992 respondents include discussions which might arise when debating the order of author names when writing up a paper and ownership of data outcomes.
The four students who were already part of a collaboration emphasised the importance of having alliances with another department or university whereby skill sets could be expanded.
Figure 2 Kingston University students and University of Oxford students express their opinions on the topic of collaboration between different institutions.
Positive outcomes for collaborative institutions
Collaboration across postgraduate research institutions shows the potential to be beneficial for KU doctoral students whereby they would learn more skills and have access to a wider range of relevant instrumentation. Furthermore, they would become exposed to a more research-focussed and intensive working environment with supervision and input from researchers in the same field which would help in the development and ultimately the dissemination of ideas. As such, results obtained from the postgraduate students’ research would be more likely to result in publication, as well as ensuring a timely completion of the research thesis (Katz and Hicks, 1997, Ponds et al., 2007, Smith, 2007). Furthermore, the collaborative institutions from the pre-1992 sector are attractive to prospective employers and hence employment prospects are maximised. On the other hand, the students interviewed from the University of Oxford were more focussed on establishing international collaborations for their research as it would enable them to be exposed to highly regarded scientists abroad and hence networking opportunities would be enhanced.
Where appropriate, the authors confirm that ethical clearance has been given.
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