Thanks to funding from the Erasmus+ programme, Elisa Coati from the University of Liverpool was able to spend 4 working days at the Centre for Doctoral Studies of the University of Vienna. Here she describes her experiences and how it helped her professional development.
I became interested in this office because of their work around the PRIDE project and the PRIDE network. Having spent all my post-PhD working life in PGR support roles, I was interested in the recognition of a distinct professional role for those involved in this area.
During my stay in Vienna, I had the opportunity to meet with several colleagues and discuss some areas of doctoral education, and the differences in our respective systems; I offered a presentation about the University of Leeds, where I worked at the time, focusing on my role as the coordinator of a Faculty Graduate School and of a Doctoral Training Centre; I attended the Centre’s annual conference (which was however focusing on Austria and held mainly in German – I could therefore only follow the topics broadly with my school-level German, but I had the opportunity to talk with more colleagues and be involved in the life of the Centre during this eventful day on their calendar). The conference touched on topics such as quality assurance, partnerships across institutions, socialisation of PGRs, support structures.
I undertook this experience only a few weeks before leaving the University of Leeds and joining the University of Liverpool. What initially seemed like a slightly unfortunate timing (as I was offered the new job after I had applied for the Erasmus visit) proved actually to be very well timed: looking back on the experience now that I have been at Liverpool for a few weeks, I can say that it has prepared me for the challenges of starting a new job, having to adapt my mental categories to a new structure and context, and meeting a lot of new colleagues with similar areas of expertise but different roles from my colleagues in Leeds. There were certainly parallels in the way I adapted to a new context in Vienna and in Liverpool during the first days, despite the obvious differences between a one-week stay and a new ongoing role.
Conversations with colleagues in Vienna highlighted strong similarities as well as very deep differences with the UK reality I am used to. We face common challenges in terms of training and development of PGRs and in supporting their teaching roles. We discussed the types of sessions offered by our respective institutions, as well as ongoing organisational problems such as space and facilities, and issues with attendance that seem to a certain extent unavoidable both in my experience and in that of colleagues at Vienna.
Despite the similarities in the training and development cultures, it soon became apparent that the differences between our systems ran deeper than I had initially envisaged, as they were determined by cultural reasons rather than just structural. In many conversations, colleagues in Vienna highlighted the strong belief in free education typical of Austrian culture, which came across as the fundamental reason for the development of many of the structures in higher education, which need to respond to high enrolment number. This differs from the strict and quality-focused admission processes that have developed in the UK.
In addition, the nature of higher education in the UK means that there is a bigger emphasis on marketing and recruitment in open competition between institutions, as well as investment in the facilities offered to PGRs – as part of a broader context currently focusing on student facilities. In turn, education and training are seen as an investment on the part of the postgraduate researcher, while Austrian colleagues explained how in their culture, titles such as Dr can be important to professionals, such as lawyers for example. The overall impression was also that the British system operates stricter processes regulating most aspects of doctoral degrees, while the large number of PGRs at the University of Vienna dictates a looser approach. There are pros and cons to both system, but the less procedural approach was not seen as weakness by colleagues, and opened up interesting conversations about the optimal level of support for doctoral candidates, and the role of universities in the journey of a postgraduate researcher.
At a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to join a new environment for a week and discuss with colleagues with vast knowledge and experience in doctoral education; I also think it can be useful and helpful to make contacts in different countries.
In addition, I had not envisaged how strongly I would feel the benefit of stepping out of the British system for a few days, and be able to look at things with different eyes, through being immersed in a different system and also through the experiences of my Austrian colleagues. During my stay, I noticed how I had become so involved in the day to day work of my role, and how other realities seemed distant. It was beneficial to just step back from my work routine and see the British system from a distance after having been part of it for so long (while not being natively and culturally British myself, which added a further layer of experience). It is this stepping out/seeing the world with different eyes aspect which I found particularly striking and one fundamental reason why I would recommend this experience to other colleagues.
As a non-Brit working in the UK, I also find it important to keep an eye on discourse at international level, both out of personal interest and with a view to expanding my career prospects beyond the UK. I also believe that it is important to take advantage of these international opportunities in the current historical moment, in order to prove the benefits of collaboration and sharing.
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