The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Towards healthy doctoral ecosystems: Key enabling factors discussed at the 2022 Doctoral Programmes Conference

towards healthy doctoral ecosystems - yellow circle lights connected by blue lines
At the 2022 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference (DPC), the general theme was the development of healthy doctoral ecosystems and the importance of networks and networking for doctoral graduates and programmes. We focused on different possible permutations of such ecosystems and on boundary conditions that ensure doctoral programmes can run smoothly.

An analogy we like to use is that of a microchip. Just like an ecosystem, there are different key components in a microchip that are linked via conductors. The chip will only function efficiently when all the necessary parts are defined, connected and aligned. During the conference, we looked at the actual and potential elements that can comprise the doctoral ecosystem and to the connections needed for alignment across the system.

Using the microchip analogy, we visualised the main learnings and messages of the conference on a whiteboard. This way, we took advantage of the physical nature of the conference and co-created the ‘doctoral microchip’ together with all delegates.

doctoral programmes mood board

Ecosystem thinking

According to the dictionary, an ecosystem (in biological terms) refers to ‘a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.’ In more general terms, an ecosystem is ‘a complex network or interconnected system.’ Referring to Moore (1993), Arnoud De Meyer defines a business ecosystem as ‘a network of organisations and individuals that co-evolve their capabilities and roles and align their investments to create additional value and/or improve efficiency’ (Global Focus). According to De Meyer, business schools can borrow from the business ecosystem concept to enable faster joint learning, to be flexible in times of change and disruption, and to accelerate innovation. Extending this to doctoral programmes, we looked at how ecosystem thinking could disrupt and innovate the doctoral education landscape, and how both organisations and individuals can work towards a successful implementation.

doctoral conference participants   managing doctoral ecosystems

As a teaser to the conference and to enhance our understanding of ecosystems and their potential for doctoral education, Arnoud De Meyer set the scene in an introductory webinar. Before we explored the success factors for building and maintaining healthy doctoral ecosystems at the 2022 DPC conference, it was crucial to get a good view on the partners within, and the requirements of a (doctoral) ecosystem. Inspired by successful loosely coupled business ecosystems, he challenged doctoral students, supervisors, as well as people responsible for doctoral programmes, to consciously draw their doctoral ecosystems and think about missing pieces that could further optimise learning. A well-orchestrated ecosystem differs substantially from a hub-and-spoke model, with trust among its partners as key, so alongside its structure, sufficient attention needs to be given to ensuring appropriate leadership.

Doctoral ecosystems – one size does not fit all

During the conference, we provided different examples of how a doctoral or knowledge production ecosystem can be shaped, aiming to show that there is no single best configuration. Depending on your institutional strategy and the surrounding regional and national context, your doctoral ‘microchip’ might look completely different. The numerous speakers and panellists demonstrated clearly that our conference theme ‘Towards healthy doctoral ecosystems’ had to be plural and that each word in the title was relevant. National context, school’s strategy, funding mechanisms, etc., all play a key role in the build-up of a doctoral ecosystem. We saw very diverse examples, ranging from Vlerick Business School (an autonomous school with two parent universities serving as degree granting institutes for the doctoral programmes) to the John Molson School of Business (a loose collaboration of four institutions offering doctoral education, which Vassili Joannidès de Lautour describes in the second article in this supplement), Copenhagen Business School (industrial PhDs), Henley Business School (one of the oldest DBAs) to the outside-in perspective of imec (an industrial and academic ecosystem in nano and digital technology).

Vlerick research ecosystem   

Boundary conditions – how to be fit for purpose?

Apart from the specific configuration of the ecosystem, it is key to focus on the boundary conditions that make doctoral ecosystems healthy. We like to define healthy in a broad sense, e.g. (financially) viable, future-proof, inclusive, value-adding, sustainable,
meaningful, responsible, etc..

What did we learn in this regard?

  • Attention to well-being, mental health and inclusion are fundamental in the increasingly diverse (in terms of participants, programme delivery, etc.) world of doctoral education. To link to the microchip analogy, it is not enough to have the right components in place, they also have to align and collaborate to produce a healthy and inclusive doctoral ecosystem.
  • To be future proof, doctoral programmes and research programmes by extension should include the challenges of our time (like SDGs, Open Science, interdisciplinarity, broadened research/faculty assessment) to stay relevant and prepare responsible future scholars.
  • Finally, the question of whether the increased digitalisation of doctoral education is a curse or a blessing was certainly the most controversial one of the conference.

The impact of digital on doctoral education: a curse or a blessing?

The pandemic gave doctoral programmes, and education institutes in general, the opportunity to find out whether they are followers or forerunners in terms of digital education. Suddenly all activities (courses, seminars, community building, follow-up, etc.) had to take place online. Some schools were already better equipped to do this than others. The pandemic definitely led to experimentation and gave a push to learning innovation that would not have happened at the same speed without this external force.

What became clear during the conference is that there are believers and non-believers (or perhaps more accurately, people who are more sceptical) about the digital evolution in doctoral education. Some people see the benefits of working online, while for others the losses are greater than the gains.

In short, digital transformation has potential in doctoral education if you look at it from an infrastructure perspective and not purely from a technological perspective, as the latter is merely replacing one type of delivery with another without taking the broader picture into account. In terms of potential benefits, institutions might want to look at:

  • Increased variation of approaches (online, hybrid and on-campus by design) and the opportunities for pedagogical engineering
  • Increased flexibility and the opportunity for all stakeholders to personalise and mould the programme to their needs
  • Opportunity to co-create the programme with all stakeholders.

digital component    L111ec

Strategically, it is important to examine business models, pricing, and faculty assessment models (teaching allocation, supervision, learning innovation, etc.) behind choices made to ensure the picture holds.

In terms of potential boundaries and risks of (too much) digitalisation, the following elements were highlighted:

  • Consider individual preferences
  • Take into account affordability for students, as not everyone has the necessary resources and technology to move online
  • Train faculty, students, and all relevant stakeholders to navigate the new digitised ecosystem.
  • Give attention to informal networking, community-building, engagement and keeping the connection
  • Give attention to mental health and wellbeing as pressure might increase with a more digital way of working
  • How to keep informal sharing, exchange and coaching in an increasingly digital world?
  • Without slack time it seems impossible to make digital shifts.

Will digital transformations lead to disruption in doctoral education? Let’s wait and see. It seems too early to tell, but for sure more experimentation occurred during and since the pandemic. It will be interesting to share the outcomes of these activities as they emerge.

Towards healthy doctoral ecosystems

See more articles from Vol.17 Issue 2 – Towards healthy doctoral systems.

Dr Eva Cools is the Research Manager and Head of Doctoral Programmes at Vlerick Business School in Belgium.

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