Teaching research methodology to our new PhD fellows is my favourite class. Doing so in small groups, as is often the case in our PhD programmes and professional training, allows me to engage in creative and innovative educational formats. It’s also much appreciated when teaching mid-career professionals, who are not used to sitting in class and listening for hours.
Every time I teach, I try a new set-up or tweak things a little. But of course, some formats have proven their value over time, so they become permanent fixtures every year. One best practice format is ‘Research Speed Dating’ between our new PhD fellows and academic staff. In an interactive classroom setting, we invite our PhDs to pitch their research idea to a few staff members in 12-minute 1-on-1 meetings.
After each ‘date’, students have to find a new match with another staff member, creating a lively buzz in the room as everyone looks for a new ‘partner’. Clearly, finding the ‘ideal match’ becomes more and more urgent after every round, as students feel they could miss out on great feedback if they do not get to date staff member X now. For staff members, the game is different. They have no choice – they simply talk to whomever sits opposite of them – but students can form strategies to ensure they meet their ideal set of professors.
Experience tells us that both staff and students enjoy the exercise. For the students, the short meetings offer quick feedback at an early stage of their PhD, in a friendly constructive way. They are explicitly introduced to the research fields of the institute. In the words of Claudia Roethlisberger, from our GPAC2 PhD programme, “the exercise is very useful. It challenges my ideas and with the limited time we are forced to be concise in our talks to convey our ideas.” Meanwhile, PhD fellow Lotte Geunis said the dates helped her to refine her ideas: “Because of the little time, and when you are speaking instead of writing, you go back to your intuitions.” This was echoed by one of our researchers, Dr. Fabiana Visentin. “Short meetings and random assignment to staff forces fellows to pitch their ideas in such a way that also non-experts they may meet will understand the problem. That allows for a great discussion on a variety of interesting research themes”.
Meeting staff members from various disciplines and with different research interests keeps the dates from becoming repetitive. Dr. Katrin Marchand, a former PhD fellow and now post-doctoral researcher, said the meetings reminded her of her first year – when you’re encouraged to think creatively and explore various ways to look at a research problem. Isabel de Bruin experienced that first hand in our latest session. “My first date, with a lawyer who has a background in gender empowerment, led me straight into the details of my topic — whereas my second date, with an innovation expert, mostly focused on the research philosophy. Both were very engaging talks, but with very different foci and outcomes.”
Overall the exercise is more than just fun. It feeds into various educational values that we as an institute support. Creativity, exploring various angles to look at your research topic, and allowing yourself to think outside the box is a meta-skill that we consider very useful for PhD fellows. The easy access to staff and non-hierarchical exchanges fit the open-door style of the institute.
Getting exposure to more staff members at an early stage in the PhD journey also encourages fellows to reach out to staff more easily later-on, when research ideas are more refined. The speed dates as such also support network building and a sense of connection with the institute. Put simply: it works. PhD fellow Valerie Giuffrida appreciated the dates, particularly meeting the staff. “I got the names of some people that work in the field, similar to my research. I think meeting them will help me greatly in narrowing down the literature that I must read, to get started”.
I think it’s safe to say that the speed dates between our staff and 2019 GPAC2 cohort were very successful. They may not lead to marriages, but this learning exercise will definitely be in the course curriculum again next year!
- PhD Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis, Dual Career (GPAC²)
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H.Pijpers