What’s the reason behind high attrition rates for PhD students? Dr Kylie Shaw is hoping to gain some insight and understanding into the reasons why.

“Approximately 40 per cent of doctoral students drop out. Attrition is still a mystery; there are all sorts of reasons why, but sometimes those are invisible,” Dr Kylie Shaw, from Newcastle’s Research Training and Transformational Knowledge research program and Centre for the Study of Research Training and Innovation said.

“We found loneliness is an issue. When undertaking a PhD, one of the outcomes is you produce new knowledge, and of course there is no one in the world who has produced the knowledge you are producing – so you can feel quite lonely within that.”

“Understanding that for your particular area it’s new, but knowing other people have been through this same process helps students feel as if they are going through a developmental process rather than having reached the ceiling of their intelligence. So this work is about demystifying the doctoral process,” she explained.

While still a PhD student herself, Shaw’s work on the research journey was acknowledged as contributing to the development of a journey tracking method employed in the successful Australian Research Council (ARC) grant on doctoral metacognition by fellow researchers Professor Allyson Holbrook, Emeritus Professor Sid Bourke, Dr Jill Scevak and Dr Robert Cantwell. At the completion of the doctoral metacognition grant, Shaw was invited to work with this team in further developing the journey method as a learning tool.

“I found through the research I did with Honours students, the process of students actually looking through the highs and lows of their journey helped them to identify their strengths and weaknesses,” Shaw said. “So, we took the notion of the journey and translated it into a tool where students tracked their journey in real time throughout their PhD.”

After securing a 2015 ARC Discovery Projects grant along with University of Newcastle colleagues Bourke, Holbrook and Scevak, as well as Professor Dennis McInerney from the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Shaw will develop an online program and consultancy package, so they can assist more students in their doctoral journey in Australia and internationally.

“The other aspect is looking at it in a professional sense – so not just doctoral learners but looking at people who are doing doctoral-level learning in the workplace. So we hope to connect with industry in this way,” Shaw said.

A second and growing strand of Shaw’s work aims to better understand innovative teaching and learning and its impact on learners, especially transference into their own innovation.

This growing expertise is recognised through her recent work as a Chief Investigator on an Innovative Teaching and Learning Grant funded by the NSW Department of Education & Communities. In this role, Shaw has worked with researchers from the Stanford Research Institute International and collaborated with global research partners from Mexico, Russia, Senegal, Finland, UK, USA and Indonesia. She also coordinated the qualitative data collection and analysis in Australia, working directly with secondary schools.

This both draws on and informs her work with doctoral students, particularly as higher education moves increasingly towards new ways of learning and use of online platforms.

“The intersection in my work is innovation,” Shaw said. “I look at increasingly innovative ways of learning in the doctorate, which is an area that has not been explored greatly – looking at different collaborative models of supervision online and focusing on evaluation and quality.”

Learn more about UON’s Faculty of Education and the Arts Research Directions in 2015.