During my undergraduate degree, in International Business, I was obsessed with airlines and my dream job was to work as an operational manager at British Airways. I did not have even the slightest interest in Higher Education until I became a Class Rep during my final year. At Class Rep training I was elected as Faculty Rep and from there I began to attend committee meetings and university workshops. This was a whole new world for me, and I left the majority of meetings enthused to learn more about the intricacies of universities, as well as work to enhance the experiences of my fellow students. Five years later, I am now at the early stages of my PhD researching the experiences of transnational students and working with Academic Registry to put in place initiatives to help support the sense of community and belonging within this Global University.
I am telling you all of this because I stumbled into researching higher education through my enthusiasm as a class rep, and if you are unsure of what you would like to study at postgraduate level: consider universities! Below are ten reasons why you should consider studying Higher Education:
- From Class Rep to PhD
I stumbled into researching Higher Education through my enthusiasm as a student representative, which then to do an international Masters on Higher Education. You may also be a student representative in some capacity, who is passionate about Higher Education matters. So much advice on choosing your PhD subject is that you enjoy the subject since you will be focusing on it for such an intense period of time. So why not consider taking your passion for Higher Education to the next level and do a PhD on it!
- You are already in the System
If you are considering a PhD, then I presume you have been a student within a university before. This means that you can associate with elements of your research through your experiences as a student. For example, if you want to research assessment practices you can reflect on your own experiences of assessment during your education; you have a certain familiarity with higher education.
- Higher Education Research is a relatively small (but growing) community
The idea of Higher Education as a field of study is still quite niche, so it means that it is a fairly small community of researchers in comparison to other subject areas. This has obvious advantages as it is easy to contact known scholars and opportunities for international collaboration. I would recommend becoming a member of the Society of Research in Higher Education (SRHE) which provides excellent resources and events for PhD students. This means that if you do decide to do your PhD in a non-higher education department/school then you will have access to relevant knowledge, conferences, networking events and materials through such organisations like SRHE.
Despite the small community of practice, there are a vast number of people working in some context in higher education and therefore there is a lot of resources that you can access as a researcher, that have been designed for higher education professionals, such as the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Quality Assurance Agency UK (QAA). Materials from such organisation may provide basis for, or support, your research!
- There are a wide range of topics
The range of areas to research in Higher Education is constantly growing as the sector grows. Here is an example of some areas that may peak your interest: student experience, governance, finance, quality assurance and enhancement, widening access and admissions, human resources, organisational structures, internationalisation, types of higher education institutions, innovation and entrepreneurialism, strategy, research, IT, MOOCS, higher education systems, marketing, academics, administration, estates, history of higher education, globalisation, politics etc. This is only a small list but hopefully gives you an idea of how vast and varied Higher Education Research actually is.
- The double-edged sword of insider research
I would recommend having a read through literature on insider research before you commence your PhD, or at least during the early stages. Researching higher education while being based at a university means that you will most likely have relatively easy access to data. However, f you decide to research your own university, this can be a double-edged sword as you may have easy access to data, but there are certain politics within universities that may prove difficult. For example, what happens if your research uncovers some uncomfortable truths that may be considered bad for publicity? Keep a look out for a post in the future on insider research!
- A career in higher education does not necessarily mean becoming an academic
This is quite an important one because even if you specialise in Higher Education, there are a range of organisations besides universities that you can have a career in: from the government to your quality assurance agency, national student organisation, think tanks, politics, research institutes, schools, colleges, universities: and those are just a few! Plus, if you want to have a career in higher education, it can only prove beneficial to become an expert of Higher Education through doing a PhD in this area.
- You don’t have to be based in a Higher Education department
While it is of course beneficial to be in a department with fellow experts in your chosen research area it is not mandatory. I am based in the School of Management & Languages as Heriot-Watt University does not have an Education school. This is perfect for my research, since I am studying transnational provision and the university has two international branch campuses, where the School is very prominent. This means that I have excellent access to data as an insider researcher.
Similar to my circumstances, you may be able to be find a suitable PhD in a social sciences department, or Business School. While you may face challenges relating to explaining your research area, being based in a Business School means that if you decide to become an academic, you can broaden your search for suitable careers in business schools and other departments, including higher education research institutes. This will be supported by having the opportunity and exposure to learn from your peers and colleagues about their research areas, as well as possible tutoring business or social science-related subjects that may only be loosely tied to your research area
- Make sure you have the right supervisor
Since Higher Education as a field of scholarship is still relatively small compared to other disciplines, you may experience some confusion when telling others what you PhD is on. If you choose to do your PhD in a non-Higher Education department/school then you may face the challenge of explaining your area to even your supervisors and colleagues. I have also had to deal with colleagues believing that higher education is my context, rather than my discipline area. My best advice is to stick with it, and become involved in your community of practice, in order to support you during these challenges. During a recent PhD training course, the tutor which answered the rather common complaint of supervisors not knowing your topic: “Your supervisor may not know much about your topic, but they know how to be a good researcher and that is where they can help you.” This means that your supervisor may not be a scholar of Higher Education, but as long as they believe in your research, they can support you with what is key: how to be a good researcher!
- A wide range of theories are available
One of the advantages of researching Higher Education is that it is an interdisciplinary, object and problem-related field of scholarship and study. This means that it isn’t a traditional discipline such as Sociology or Finance. Most of the theories and methodologies in Higher Education draw from social science-related disciplines, which means that you have a lot of scope to find a theory that is relevant and fits within your research project.
- Publishing opportunities
As a Higher Education Researcher, there is a lot of journals that will be opportunities for you to publish. There are seven leading specialist higher education journals that should be a focus of where to publish: Journal of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, Review of Higher Education, Higher Education Research and Development, Higher Education, and Teaching in Higher Education. These journals should be the focus of your literature review, with the hope of publishing in one (or a few!) of them in the future. Of course, due to the interdisciplinary nature of Higher Education Research, you also have the opportunity to publish in a number of social science journals that may be relevant to the nature and context of your research. Moreover, you can present at higher education professional conferences, such as HEA or QAA events, since your research will most likely have implications for practice within the sector.