Higher Degree by Research Placements

Case Studies

Higher Degree by Research Placements

UQ provides placements for Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidates as part of their study program. The experience is designed to embed their graduate attributes and enable them to identify and articulate the skills they have gained through their HDR program in a new research context.

Baris Yildirim – Sustainable Minerals Institute, Waninda Phetsang – Institute for Molecular, Karen Olave



Model/s of WIL activity

Industry/community based placement

Description of WIL activity

A HDR placement provides research skills-based project experiences for HDR students, alongside and complementing their research thesis. Industry placements can be undertaken in the private or public sector, or in not-for-profit and community-based organisations. Students transfer the skills learnt throughout their HDR program into a new context and reflect on how they have implemented these as part of the placement.

How long has it been operating?

6 years

How does the WIL activity demonstrate good practice and/or innovation?

UQ was one of the first universities to provide non-cognate placements for HDR candidates in Australian universities. The focus of the program is on the professional development of the candidate to embed and enhance transferrable skills from their research program and to better prepare them for diverse work environments. A key component of the UQ HDR Placement program is that the placement cannot overlap with the candidate’s research project but instead focus on their work-readiness as they simultaneously develop their research skills through their thesis project.

Due to the nature of the HDR program, the placement activity is embedded as a pass/fail milestone as part of the program. Placements are usually self-sourced by the candidate, where they pitch, scope and collaborate with a partner to propose a potential placement for approval by the Graduate School Dean. Projects are scoped and developed in partnership with Research-End-Users (This term may include businesses, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities and community organisations) to leverage the high level analytical and critical thinking skills of HDR candidates. At the end of each placement, students are asked to engage in reflective practice and articulate how they have been able to build upon the HDR graduate attributes by undertaking the experience.

Who benefits from the WIL activity and how?

Students and partners are the key beneficiaries. For partners, the program connects them to the University and the latest research practice and training in their field, exposes them to a highly trained research candidate who can contribute new ideas and fresh perspectives, provides an opportunity to improve the leadership and supervisory skills of their staff, and is a low risk way to discover a potential employee. For students, the program provides an opportunity to apply the skills they have gained through their HDR program in a new context, allows them to see their research skills applied to an industry problem or need, challenges them to understand how different industries and workplaces operate compared with academia, widens their professional network, and allows them to explore new potential career options in a supported environment. Supervisors are also beneficiaries, linking them to industry, to help motivate the student in their research studies by providing clarity on how their skills can translate to new contexts.

How does the activity embed successful evaluation processes?

Assessment in the program focuses on reflective practice. Students are required to submit a report reflecting upon the experience, what skills they have developed and how that links to their Graduate Attributes. They are required to provide examples to support their argument. The workplace supervisor also provides feedback and assessment of the student’s skills and how they performed against the graduate attributes. Based on these two pieces of assessment the student is provided with a final grade of pass/fail.

In addition to the assessment piece the placements coordinator also checks in with the host and student at the beginning and middle of the placement to ensure things are on track and that any issues are identified and resolved quickly. This iterative feedback process is used to inform improvements to the program.

What are the broader/longer term impacts for stakeholders?

Students who undertake industry engagement from activities such as placements are more likely to understand the variety of career options available to them and are more optimistic about their career prospects (Bentley, Bexley & Dollinger, 2017). Industry are exposed to new research practice and increasingly understand the value of hiring HDR graduates (ACGR, 2021).

In addition, students report that they have become more aware of their transferrable skills and the value they can bring to a variety of organisations. The UQ program anecdotally reports around 20~30% of students receiving offers of employment for candidate’s participating in the program. Placement hosts have frequently reported that HDR candidates on placement have helped expose their teams to new way of thinking, or have provided recommendations that the organisation has then implemented. Two case studies are included at the links below:

UQ currently has an ethics application pending for a research project focusing on HDR placements and further results are expected upon the conclusion of that project.

How is the WIL activity integrated into curricula?

Due to the diversity of disciplines and nature of research in the HDR program, a set curricula is not present. However, placements are incorporated in to the program as a special milestone, with a pass/fail grade. Students are introduced early to the idea of undertaking a placement through their HDR candidature as part of their induction in to the university. They have the ability to undertake workshops focused on career and professional development as part of the Career Development Framework and attend workshops on how to establish a placement as part of their HDR program. Specifically, preparation workshops on establishing a placement are mandatory for students considering undertaking a placement as part of their degree program. They are asked to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and how they would leverage those when approaching a placement.

Before commencing a placement, the students are required to engage with the Research-End-User to scope the extent of their placement and outline their mutual expectations. This proposal is reviewed and provided with feedback and approval from the Dean of the Graduate School. Students then also receive a briefing session focused on expectation setting and ensuring they understand all aspects of the program before commencing. The student works with the placement coordinator to prepare for the placement, and then is assigned a mentor at the host, who inducts them to the new organisation and is a touch point while they are on placement. The placement coordinator also checks in with the host and student at the beginning and middle and end of the placement, to ensure things are on track and that any issues are identified and resolved quickly. Finally, at the end of the placement the student completes their reflection report and the host provides an assessment of the student’s performance.

How is it informed by relevant theoretical or empirical literature, research and/or scholarship?

Industry (or Research-End-User) placements in the landscape of research training have been highlighted as an important opportunity for candidates to collaborate with industry partners and improve their future employability in non-academic settings (Department of Education, 2014; Jones & Warnock, 2015). Providing placements as part of research training programs has been recognised both nationally and internationally as an important vehicle to support HDR students to link themselves to research end users and equip themselves with the skills required for their future careers (ACOLA,2016; Molla & Cuthbert, 2019).

Jones, H. and Warnock, L. (2015). When a PhD is not enough: A case study of a UK internship programme to enhance the employability of doctoral researchers. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, 5(3): 212-227
Molla, T. and Cuthbert, D. (2019). Calibrating the PhD for Industry 4.0: global concerns, national agendas and Australian institutional responses. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/2332969.2019.1637772.
Department of Education, Australian Government. (2014). Initiatives to enhance the professional development of research students.
McGagh, J, Marsh, H, Western, M, Thomas, P, Hastings, A, Mihailova, M, Wenham, M (2016) Review of Australia’s Research Training System. Report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, www.acola.org.au.

Moonie Ha Placements Officer and Kate Swanson Senior Manager HDR Development – The University of Queensland

What are the plans for the WIL activity in the future?

There may be changes required in response to a current government review of the Research Training Program and Higher Education information management data. This review may require a shift in the focus of the program to an early candidate placement to continue to receive government financial support for HDRs. While this is not yet formalised, a final decision will be delivered in Dec 2021/January 2022. Further developing the program to include additional options such as a ‘pitch to a partner’ model and group placement work is also being scoped. A pilot of the ‘pitch to partner’ was run in 2021 where an industry partner presented their key priorities and students pitched their placement project idea to the partner for selection. These two initiatives would help us to scale the program to provide placement opportunities to more HDR candidates.