What are we training Postgraduates for?

By Edson Charikinya and Julie McFarlane (Article published in the Postgraduate Times Stellenbosch University publication)

Becoming an academic has long ceased to be the only or even the primary motivation for students pursuing postgraduate studies

Stellenbosch University

“I remember fondly my last year at University just before I got my first degree. If anyone told me I would be coming back for another degree I would have told them that they have gone completely bonkers!”  This is how Dr Wustner, researcher at SU Centre of Process Engineering, recalls his last days as an undergraduate engineering student almost 15 years ago.
“I couldn’t wait to embark on a working career,” he laughs. Dr Wustner did not expect that he would be back after only six months at work , applying to do a Postgraduate Master’s degree in Engineering.
So why did he come back?  “I just didn’t know how to solve most of the problems that I was coming across in industry”.  All the theory and technical skills he had learned in his undergraduate studies simply had not prepared him enough to solve real world problems.
Even though today Dr Wustner is a career researcher, his initial motivation for further studies was to better his skills and career prospects as a professional engineer.
Becoming an academic has long ceased to be the only or even the primary motivation for students pursuing postgraduate studies.
Annette Van Niekerk is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic practitioner now doing her MPhil in Ancient Cultures. “I want to broaden my understanding of the human psyche.” she says.
Many students believe that having a postgraduate qualification improves their chances in the market place, both in finding a job or in getting promoted.  “This wasn’t’t part of my career path,” says Tinashe George Tendayi, an MSc Engineering (Industrial) student from Zimbabwe, “but it gives me a competitive edge as far as employment opportunities are concerned.” 
Others use postgraduate studies to take their careers to the next level.  Izelda Swanepoel has taken a break from work to study an MBA.  “I believe this degree is the best single degree that I can do to qualify me for what I need to do”, she says.”
And as competition in the job market increases, many do not stop at Master’s level. Lusanda Mtshotshisa is studying Masters in Lay in the department of Mercantile law, is now considering doing her Doctorate in law. ““It seems preferable to do all my studying now whilst I still can get away with it rather than go out to find work only to want to come back and study again”.
2 recent studies, one conducted by the Centre for Research on Science and Technology (CREST) and another by Dr Chaya Herman from the University of Pretoria have shown that even at Doctoral level, there are many reasons apart from preparing for an academic career why students pursue doctoral studies. These include expected earnings increases and career prospects outside academia.
 But is a PhD adequate preparation for managerial positions outside of academe? The USA, Australia and more recently the UK have seen the rise of “the professional doctorate”, with a structured taught component. But South African Doctoral degrees with the large research component expected by the higher Education Qualifications Framework, are still structured to reflect the traditional concept of the PhD as training for academia.
Even if the development of professionals and managers outside of academia might not currently be the explicit aim of postgraduate training, students feel that at least some workplace skills are the outcome of their postgraduate experience.
Cindy, a PhD Psychology student explains, “My postgraduate studies have taught me three valuable lessons. One, I am able to do most things I set my mind to. Two, persistence pays off. Three, I may not start out with all the knowledge on a subject, but I’ve certainly developed the skills to gather any knowledge that I may need for any application.” Similar sentiments are echoed by Foibe, a Masters student in Process Engineering, who says her postgraduate studies have prepared her well in “research work, problem solving, and time management.”

Certainly skills employers in any field would value highly.