Returning from Hannover: The Outcomes on Professional Development from the Forces and Forms of Doctoral Education Conference, Hannover, Germany, September 2019


Merasi Nerad, with the sponsorship of VolkswagonStiftung, brought together approximately 100 academics from around the globe to discuss current trends and possible futures for PhD education. 

Work was divided into five tracks, covering the forms and trends of the last fourteen years, the impact of change on the institutions and the effect that has had, the policy dimensions, economic dimensions and finally the macro societal/political changes on the roles of PhD researchers.  The week started with working groups, who had previously started their investigations virtually, coming together in a workshop format while finalizing their reports. 

I was excited to take part in the conference itself and found it a fantastic day and a half of intense conversations.  DoctoralNet provides professional development services to universities and I looked forward to leaving with a better understanding of the subtleties across the globe as pertain to the contexts and challenges for Masters as well as PhD education.  While Masters was not addressed directly, private conversations helped me know where to begin the next iteration of discovery.

This conference was spectacular not just in academic outputs but also from a teaching and learning or training point of view. It is difficult to organize an outpouring of ideas and still keep people engaged, yet, for me at least, they were 100% successful.  The work of each subgroup was discussed first, then everyone was given the opportunity for reflective practice through asking questions using an app.  Not just questions but the ability to vote on which of those were also important to you, kept people engaged.  Any query voted up was discussed and the rest captured for an indeterminant future time. Finally, small group dialogue allowed personal relationships to develop.

My Position in the conversation

Being outside of the traditional university but working closely with graduate school Deans to provide increased opportunities for students, candidates and/or early career researchers, I was excited to go to Hannover. What I love about the academy is our preference to think deeply about our situation. As others discussed “putting the Ph back in PhD” I mused instead on which aspects of practice might change as a result of these conversations. 

I hope others who attended will join me in outlining changes in practice, relative to the ideas discussed.

Main Points of what I heard for professional development

Several ideas discussed will have effect on the topical content offered by DoctoralNet services. Many will require us to reach out for speakers to join our virtual community and present their ideas to the international audience we serve.

There is no question that the last decade has seen an upsurge in the PhD as a commodity and that this is a response to both economic drivers and to the needs of industry.  On the one hand the need to prepare people for their next employment has always been part of graduate work, albeit previously for the PhD this work was assumed to be as a professor.  After obtaining a degree, adults need to find employment and more often now those jobs may be in industry. At the same time, industry is being courted as a funding source for institutions and there is a concern their voice may play too big a part in times to come. When seen as a commodity will the role of science switch to an economic one rather than that of a neutral problem solver or developer in a creative world?

It became clear that professional development has a role in discussing issues and differences from a global point of view.  At the very least we should offer webinar topics aimed at uncovering questions about the influence of context on science.  Clearly there is a need for training in cross global concerns and the manner in which science, when taken out of its local context, can lead to outcomes that are hurtful. 

We don’t want to travel a road that leads to racial or cultural determinism. Because the company touches so many thousands of students, I left understanding the necessity of keeping clear values as to inclusion and equanimity.  This requires we commit to doing the extra work to uncover the global discourse and share it throughout what we offer.  I left committed to searching out global speakers who will share not just their academic ideas but their cultural influences as well.

Along with physical and cultural context we need to consider the ratio of STEM vs. Humanities.  With the increase in STEM funding and the perceived lessoning of employment in the humanities do we run the risk of science becoming less human?  We might look for speakers to use our international format to share their ideas on this topic.

Global science has many perspectives and keeping alive those of the underserved or first nation people must continue to be important.  The good work to this effect that I have heard about from my Canadian connections was not covered, but stories from New Zealand, Chile, and others were.  The world needs to incorporate these people and understand how their worldview can impact science.  I have no ideas at this moment about the role our company can play in this but am open to suggestions.

What to these mean to doctoralnet’s professional development practices?

The belief of DoctoralNet Ltd. is that postgraduate level professional development, delivered in a global digital format, has a role to play in filling the gaps experienced across university postgraduate education.  What are the gaps identified from the Hannover experience and how do we intend to address them?

Gap #1 – awareness across disciplines of different contextual points of view.

Playing off of my experience with the app used to increase participation in the event, and its ability to enhance reflective practice, we commit to finding a tool that will work in a similar fashion with our international webinars.  We will ask for divergent ideas, and encourage cross discipline understanding, whatever the format or topic of the discussion.

Gap #2 was in my own understanding of the global dissimilarities in status on campus of the pHD candidate.  Graduate, especially PhD students, are not always students – sometimes more employees.   The outcome of this is that I will look to and reconsider not only the tenor of our webinars but the language we use in our marketing and in the book I am writing on The Hidden Curriculum of Graduate School.  In the US, where most of our high research university partners are, student is appropriate although they are often also employees or some strata of that distinction as well.  It is important to give credit to the emerging early career researcher. -

Gap #3 Global Ethics – Macro vs. Micro ethics. I leave Hannover with this as the most interesting of the new (to me) topics to unpack, write about, and talk on.  I’ve been familiar with the ethical dilemmas of Artificial Intelligence, but less so the ethical dilemmas of cross-cultural research values and practices.   Time to search out these and their relationship to bias.


I go home with my worldview challenged, as I had hoped I would.  I have respect for the people I was privileged to interact with, and for their dedication to higher education in general and the education of PhDs in particular.  I suspect that, for others as well as for myself, part of the enjoyment of an activity like this conference is the mix of metacognitive and cognitive, which is inherent in the degree process as well.  We continue to explore the potential of research science and its role in leadership together.

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