Maturing into an expert is supported by helping to develop diverse skills and strengths. In addition, the networking of doctoral researchers with companies and organizations in the region will be promoted.
This project created an ExpertZones model that provides a structured way to support doctoral researchers' psychological well-being, career path development, and networking. The model helps doctoral researchers and other academics alike understand the various dimensions of expertise and become aware of their strengths and development needs related to their growth into a specialist in their research field.
The project established support groups and a well-being team at the University of Oulu to maintain doctoral researchers’ well-being. In addition, the project integrated support for career development and networking, together with related skills training, into the doctoral research process. As a result of this project, we expect an increase in the doctoral researchers' well-being and the broadening of their expertise beyond the subject of their research.
During the implementation of the ExpertZones project, the world changed enormously due to the coronavirus pandemic in a way that could not be anticipated. The change was visible in many ways in the everyday life of the University of Oulu and doctoral researchers. The pandemic and its multiple consequences emphasized the importance of the project's topics, especially psychological well-being. In light of research and the experiences of the project, numerous doctoral researchers are struggling with the challenges related to completing a dissertation. Working remotely and alone made the doctoral journey harder for many. In the project, we felt it was crucial to offer doctoral researchers ways and opportunities to develop their psychological well-being and career development skills. Those skills will be beneficial not only during the doctoral journey but also after graduation.
In the project, we implemented numerous different activities which we further developed to better suit the needs of doctoral researchers. Some activities were short webinars, seminars, and workshops, while others were longer such as regularly met groups. We wanted to offer a variety of activities in terms of content and implementation methods so that everyone could find the most suitable ones for them at the moment. Some of the activities were organized remotely, but as the project progressed and restrictions were lifted, most activities were held on campus. Although remote participation is easy, physical presence makes the participation deeper and more meaningful. Especially in activities related to well-being and networking, the importance of presence was meaningful: the discussions were deeper and the participation more active.
Groups that met regularly and were guided by work coaches worked particularly well in the project's operating environment. The professional coaches created a confidential atmosphere in the groups so that the doctoral researchers could share their feelings and experiences. In addition, the work coaches taught the participants numerous means, to help the doctoral researchers to organize their work activities while taking care of their well-being.
Networking and career development skills played an essential role in the project. Knowing how to network is an important skill, which has an impact both on career development and well-being. By networking with other doctoral researchers, the researchers can get and give peer support. Peer support is an essential resource during the years-long dissertation process. Networking also helps the researchers with their career development in academia and industry. In addition, doctoral researchers benefit from a wide range of skills related to career development, which traditionally have not been systematically taught in doctoral education. These include e.g. identifying and verbalizing their skills, making an elevator speech and a distinctive CV as well as utilizing LinkedIn.
In the project, we also identified the impact of the steering skills of the doctoral supervisors on the progress and even the well-being of the doctoral researchers. The impact is confirmed by numerous studies on the subject both in Finland and around the world. In addition to steering and guiding skills, there are also other aspects affecting the success of the supervisory relationship. Those include the expectations the supervisor and the doctoral researcher have of each other and how well their communication works. All in all, promoting supervisors' skills helps both the doctoral researchers and the supervisors themselves. By developing the supervisors' skills, it is possible to influence both the dissertation researchers' well-being and their progress in completing their dissertation.
Overall, the project exceeded our expectations and goals. During the project, we were able to develop and try different activities in practice. Many actions developed in the project were found to be important and the most useful will continue to live even after the project. Investing in doctoral researchers' psychological well-being, career development, and networking skills can be seen in the progress of dissertations and employment after graduation. The skills do not only benefit the doctoral researchers themselves but also the organizations hiring PhDs.