The Impact of Doctoral Research in Information Science and Librarianship

Perceived Benefits of Doctoral Research for the Student

In Helen Grindley's questionnaire response she stated: "The algorithms developed during the doctoral research were taken up by Tripos Inc. (an American chemical structure software house) and incorporated as a module in their commercial software "Sybyl." Concerning her list of publications, limited to those she contributed to and co-authored only, she added:

"As I did not stay in the area of my doctoral research, I did not take any notice of subsequent publications that may have resulted from my doctoral research. However I am sure that there must be some."

According to Professor Peter Willett, the 3-D protein structure algorithms Dr. Grindley developed in her doctoral research continue to be used within the Structural Studies Group in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, with whom researchers in the Department of Information Studies continue to work and publish. This programme has been very successful in the discovery of previously unknown protein structures and the result, among others, has been a steady flow of collaborative publications (most recently, and perhaps most notably for a Department of Information Studies, a letter to Nature).

Clearly, Dr. Grindley's doctoral research has benefited her Department at Sheffield, as well as other parts of the university and the practice community. In fact both Dr. Ellis' ongoing research and further work in the area of Dr. Grindley's research have contributed greatly to the continued superior (now five-star) status of this Department in the British Universities Funding Council Research Assessment Exercise.

It was difficult to find similar instances of the continued impact of an award holder's doctoral research within other departments and practice communities, due to the problem of information scarcity described earlier.

The award-holders who could be reached for this project, however, were more elaborate in their questionnaire responses on the topic of the benefits of their doctoral research and its aftermath, as they themselves perceived them.

As far as professional benefits are concerned, one award-holder summed up the major one simply as: "No Ph.D., no career." This response was expanded by others, as for example: "If I had not been enrolled in a Ph.D. programme I would not have secured permanent contracts in academic life." Another wrote:

"The qualification is valued within a university context. I have insights into the research process and into the process of supervising others which allow me to manage projects and research students."

A third noted that the doctoral research "enabled me to teach in wider management areas than I was originally employed for."

Others award holders spoke of new career paths and opportunities which their doctoral research had opened up for them. For example, one now in an academic post noted that the Ph.D. had enabled her to make this change in career direction. She continued:

"The research experience is only marginally relevant to my teaching in terms of subject content, but useful for supervising my own research students and project students."

One noted that she had been invited to undertake subsequently a related piece of work. Another stated:

"I have also been able to find a 'niche' where not many people are researching which has given me a relatively high profile in the area."

Many respondents made a special note of the skills they have acquired as a result of their doctoral research. One spoke of the "incidental experience of writing papers and making presentations" and in general gaining familiarity with one's field. Other beneficial acquired skills listed by the various respondents are computing knowledge (and, in general, keeping abreast of information technology), discipline, meeting and talking with experienced professionals, problem-solving and analysis, research skills, self-motivation, etc. Many noted that these skills are now useful in their professional posts. One responded that the time to study and develop ideas was important to him, and that the doctoral research helped to sharpen his career objectives. One who currently holds a "practitioner" position stated:

"Although I have not stayed in the area of my doctoral research, I feel that I have gained some transferable skills (computing, research process, writing/presentation skills etc.) that are of benefit to me in my current career path."
A current practising librarian states listed "understanding of the library profession more, contacts in the profession" as most beneficial to her.

One respondent, who indicated that there were problems within his department in the area of supervision, nevertheless stated that the process of doctoral research had taught him to "think independently and to sustain a research effort in the absence of any supportive environment." He also noted that subsequently it had helped him in getting his current position.

In addition to the professional benefits, were there benefits in doctoral research which carried over to the personal lives of the award-holders? Yes, felt a majority. One noted that the process had given him a "more questioning approach to all aspects of life" and made him "more prepared to challenge conventions and assumptions." Some spoke of "enjoyment" of the research, of the "value of achieving a doctorate," of "great personal satisfaction in completing a major piece of research," and again of "personal satisfaction in having attempted (and completed in three years and 1 month) a Ph.D." One spoke of the development of inter-personal skills, gaining confidence, and the fact that she is now taken seriously as a result of her Ph.D. Others also described the "kudos," "greater respectability," etc. they now received. Completing the PhD., wrote another, was a "great boost to my self-confidence, and I enjoyed it immensely." Still another wrote:

Personally, my doctoral work was enormously fulfilling intellectually. I thoroughly enjoyed the research process from start to finish. I felt like a detective hunting for answers to unique research questions.... Equally the research interviews...were a highly interesting, data rich source to draw from -- I met some incredibly interesting people in the course of the data collection and found this to be a very inspiring exercise.

For many the professional and personal benefits overlap; for example one lists the training in research that she learned from her doctoral research as personally beneficial. "I have learned about the shape a research project should take," she wrote.

Some of the respondents couched the personal rewards of their doctoral research in terms of difficulty. The award-holder who had hinted at supervisor problems stated that his personal reward was "a feeling of having proved myself in adversity." One, who did write that she had enjoyed the first two years of full-time study, noted that she then found finishing the Ph.D. while working full time "very difficult." While one or two respondents left this section of the questionnaire blank, only one wrote that the personal benefits were "none."

The question of whether or not their Ph.D. research had yielded social benefits was regarded dubiously by most of the award-holders. Many ignored the question or responded with question marks or exclamation marks. Others simply stated "none." Those who did respond to the question, however, most often described the social benefits of meeting other students, e.g., "I found the opportunity to mix and make friends with other overseas Ph.D. students immensely rewarding" and "Being part of a group of young researchers when I was a full-time student was very enjoyable" and

"The wide range of people I met during the research...brought my subject to life after the loneliness of the literature searching and preliminary review. Many of the contacts that I made during this time are still useful to my professional life, and a few remain as friends."
One has found that using the title "Dr." avoids arguments over the marital status titles for women. Another noted that the doctoral research "turned me into a paranoid/boring workaholic at the time but I came out OK at the end!" Finally, one responded that his income was higher because of the Ph.D., and that this gives more social benefits.

Although most expressed views on the question of financial benefits, not all of the responses were positive. The range of views can be seen in the following comments:

"I have advanced more rapidly and held positions of greater responsibility due to my Ph.D."

"Gaining a Ph.D. secured my promotion...with the accompanying financial remuneration."

"Current job pays well, though if I didn't have the Ph.D. I'd be doing something else not in research, so impossible to say whether there is any financial benefit."

"At the time [there were] very few! But I'm doing OK now but I can't say if I would or wouldn't be earning as much in a different job with no Ph.D."

"Have stayed in academic (university) employment -- am not expecting major financial benefits!"

"Ph.D. published in monograph form -- some royalties although not a best seller!"

"I don't think it is particularly beneficial now."

"I don't think there are any real quantifiable financial benefits in my case."

"Not really -- I was certainly not better off whilst doing my Ph.D. than in my previous job, and I doubt that I'm better paid now than I would have been if I'd stayed in my previous type of work."


Two respondents listed benefits other than those that could be classed as professional, personal, social or financial. One noted that the ability to publish her Ph.D. when beginning her first academic position was very beneficial. The other wrote:

"It hasn't changed my life, but I have fulfilled a personal goal and most importantly acquired a passport to work as an academic. So it is a form of professional security too."

While all of the award-holders feel that they have benefited in several ways from their doctoral research, there are a few who have also noted disadvantages. Of the negative comments having to do with disadvantages during the time of the research, rather than subsequently, the majority have to do with the loneliness and "intellectual isolation" of the research exercise. Perhaps this accounts for the sparse responses to the earlier question of social benefits. One described this and other disadvantages as:

I felt quite isolated at times -- researching an area in which there wasn't a great deal of activity. Financially, I went through some rough patches trying to survive on a DfE studentship. I don't think my parents were too chuffed that I was taking yet another qualification....

Another wrote:

My research involved external organisations, and I was to some extent dependant on their time scales and therefore unable to schedule my work as I would have wished. It also involved a lot of travelling. This, and the sheer amount of work, didn't to my social life much good -- quite isolating at times, especially as I was the only person in my institution working in this area.

A third commented:

It is the nature of a Ph.D., UK system, that one tends to spend the first year defining and narrowing the parameters of the research topic. During this time there is a sense of isolation -- 'the loneliness of the long distance researcher' creeps in. Maybe a more collegial involvement in research teams/seminars would be useful to combat this experience.

One other award-holder commented on the financial hardship she suffered during her doctoral research and its negative impacts. She stated that, although she was awarded a two year DfE studentship, she had to work full time while writing up. "This was not easy!" she wrote. "I could very easily NOT have completed the thesis or suffered the breakdown of a very important personal relationship."

As for any perceived disadvantages subsequent to the doctoral research (i.e., on-going disadvantages), one respondent noted that he had chosen a topic of personal interest, not directly related to his teaching path. Among all of the award-holders, his long-term assessment ("Probably a negative outcome in the long run") was uncharacteristically bleak.

The few remaining comments about longer-term disadvantages fell into two categories. Some noted continuing financial difficulties, while others felt that they were now "overqualified" for many positions. Two noted that the net result of their Ph.D. study, financially, was the loss of three years of pensionable earnings. One mentioned financial strain and debts still to repay. As for the "overqualified" concern, one wrote that being an expert in a particular field has many advantages "but also the more specialised you become - in some ways - the less employable you are."

Regarding the DfE studentships themselves (or their successors), several award-holders noted that, helpful though they were to them, the financial assistance they provided was insufficient. "It's tough [living] on a grant and getting tougher," commented one.

Judging from the responses received in this project, the most significant disadvantage of doctoral research is the loneliness and isolation experienced during the process. This may have been offset by social friendships among the researchers in some instances, but clearly not in others. Relatively few respondents noted any significant disadvantages over the longer term; those who did focused on financial concerns and a concern (among the practitioners and/or those not yet having a permanent academic post) about "over-qualification" in the job market. Four respondents either left the question about perceived disadvantages blank, or filled in "none."

Note: Artymiuk, P.J., Poirrette, A.R., Rice, D.W. & Willett, P. "A polymerase I palm in adenylyl cyclase?" Nature, 388, 1997, 33-34.

Mary Dykstra Lynch and T.D. Wilson©British Library Board 1997