What attributes might doctoral graduates need to contribute to the world of the future? A ‘modest’ reflection

Authors : Neda Bebiroglu & Lynn McAlpine

Change is an enduring feature of our modern lives. As the climate crisis, the ongoing wars, the COVID pandemic, the global movement for social justice, and the emerging developments in artificial intelligence have shown, change may be very sudden or creep up on us, but it is often disruptive. We can expect future societal disruptions that impact the way we work, interact, and think. This uncertainty is a challenge for all. How can we prepare future generations for an unknown and constantly changing future?

On this paper, we reflected on the needs of a specific group, future generations of doctoral graduates, given our research on their careers. We argue that a major purpose of the doctorate should be to help individuals grapple with still unknown issues in ways that benefit their career potential across labour sectors, society, and the world. 

One becomes an expert in a specific scientific field through doctoral training While in the future, being really good at something or being an “expert” will still be important, it may not be enough. The question we ask is “in the face of evolving global and societal change, what attributes should we reinforce in doctoral graduates so they can effectively respond to change and continue advancing their careers and contributing to society, and the world? 

Based on our reading of the research as well as our own research, we argue that the answer to the question can be encapsulated in an “open stance”. In an environment where change happens regularly, a crucial stance is openness, curiosity, critical assessment, and a readiness to change and learn – and to think, value and act differently. An important aspect of this stance is being forward thinking and curious, good at adapting and adjusting to changing tasks, social and environmental features, while not doing so unquestioningly.  Of course, some doctoral programs may already possess some of these elements; our proposal is that these elements should serve as criteria to be aimed for, reinforced, strenghtened and highlighted. 

Further, there is one primary attribute “versatility” and five secondary attributes: (characterized as 5C’s for ease of recall): “collaborative”, “communicative”, “creative”, “cross-skilled” and “caring”) that we may reinforce and strengthen in doctoral scientitsts  to help them influence change. We describe each concept below.

Versatality. The 5C’s are connected and integrated coherently through “versatility”, Versatality has two aspects:

  1. Across different attributes: Being versatile means being skilled at ensuring a coherence, a weaving together,  in ways that different attributes support each other. Thus, being versatile requires prioritizing and recalibrating attributes in light of the evolving or changing situation. For instance, temporarily focusing on communication and caring over collaboration to resolve unexpected relational issues; or learning new skills in light of emerging technologies to re-calibrate the nature of cross-skilling and creativity. 
  2. Within each attribute across different contexts, collaborators, jobs, tasks, and functions: Versatility ensures a fluidity of the same secondary attribute across. For instance, being a versatile communicator requires recognizing different audiences (students, researchers, clients), effectively listening to them, decoding their messages, and in light of this new knowledge reinventing the ways to respond.  

The secondary attributes that are particularly important to reinforce are: 

Collaborative. The problems we are facing in the world are complex and multidimensional, which means that our work is and will increasingly require collaboration. These collaborations will be at every level, collaborations between laboratories, disciplines, sectors, and across a diverse set of people coming from different social, ethnic, professional, and educational backgrounds (academic and non-academic participants, as it is the case for transdisciplinary research). Collaborative doctoral graduates who are versatile can efficiently and fluidly shift between contexts, across a diverse set of collaborators. Such individuals are motivated to gain from and contribute to multiple diversities and perspectives and have a willingness to modify their own views based on these collaborations. 

Communicative. Doctoral graduates will interact more and more with a diverse set of indivuduals in order to translate complex issues into simple ideas. They will need to be versatile communicators, adjusting their style of communication to their audiences to influence their thinking and actions, but also want to be influenced by them to develop broader perspectives. Versatile communicators are also skilled at integrating into their repertoires new means of communication, emerging from the technological advances– yet still remain aware of the misuses of such advances. 

Creative. In a changing environment, creativity and to find innovative solutions to complex problems will be a necessity. Creatives see the unexpected as potentially serendipitous and the uncertainty as an opportunity to imaginatively think across problems. We will need versatile creators,who  regardless of the issue (e.g., a team communication problem, a project that experiences disruption, a social, economic or technical concern), or the context (e.g., work, school), or the task (e.g., managing a project, collecting data), that has been unyielding to change, will use exploratory thinking to see things in new ways, seize new ideas, and then run with them once fully explored and critiqued.  

Cross-skilled. We will need cross-skilled individuals who are open to and good at regularly learning new skills. Therefore, doctoral graduates, in addition to their domain-specific skills (expertise, data analysis, visualisation, etc.), will be ready to learn and integrate new skills and apply them in different ways across varied tasks, sectors (government, university or industry), contexts and job functions. Versatility regarding being cross-skilled requires an ease in shifting between skills and combining skills depending on the situational needs, taking on new roles outside one’s existing responsibilities in order to positively impact the situation.

Caring: Research professionals need to live, enact, practice an ethic of care. Such an ethic means focusing on the real, lived experience of people in all their diversity: treating individuals with respect, seeking to enable positive impacts, and contribute through their work to their communities and society as a whole. Versatility regarding being caring implies the capacity to observe where social problems lie that one’s expertise could help address. It could equally encompass changing one’s interpersonal approach based on the needs of others and to have a meta-perception that each relationship and interaction is unique, complex, and different. 

Many doctoral programs strive to give and reinforce some of these attributes. Current doctoral training in many parts of the world is the training of competitive experts who are trained to function in a specific environment, on a specific topic, doing specific tasks, mostly with similar-minded people. Then the question we should ask ourselves as educators, researchers, supervisors, professors, or research managers is: Are we cultivating an open stance? Are we considering versatility when we reinforce an attribute? And most importantly, how far are we to prepare doctoral graduates so that they can grapple with still unknown issues in ways that benefit society, the world and themselves? 


Neda Bebiroglu is a Scientific Advisor and Coordinator at the Observatory of Research and Scientific Careers at the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique – FNRS, Belgium. Her research examines factors that shape the career pathways of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. She currently serves as member of the OECD-GSF expert group on “career options for doctoral and postdoctoral scientists”.

Lynn McAlpine is Professor Emerita of Higher Education Development at the University of Oxford. She is internationally recognized for her research, conducted in the UK, Europe and Canada, into doctorate and post-doctorate career trajectories both within and beyond the academy. She receives frequent international invitations to do sessions that explore the implications of this research from pedagogical and policy perspectives.

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