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Case study 19: Using research nodes to support Master’s students, Uppsala University, Sweden

Overview

Master’s students are supported by inclusion into the institution’s research teams. Research supports students since students support current research at the institution. Furthermore, students are organised in research nodes wherein several researchers, from different departments, hold meetings concerning a common study area to share and discuss different disciplines’ work on a similar topic. The Node is organised and quality assured by a researcher, but most activities and communication is conducted with, and by, students. Students are the Node’s resource both for its organisation and for the individual research projects conducted within its framework.

NB: Master’s students in Sweden study for two years. In the first year, they primarily study courses, whilst the second is more focused on the dissertation, which encompasses between 30-60 credits (ECTS) of which 45 is the standard size (approximately 9 months of research). Although the students do not have courses in dissertation work until the second year, they are expected to work on it, and hold meetings with their supervisor from Day 1.

Keywords

Students as resource, student participation, master class, research node

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

Master’s students are increasingly enrolled in master’s programmes and through these are connected to a research group, called Node. The Node provides selected master’s students and researchers the opportunity for joint research, supervision and teaching as well as connection to international networks.

A node is focused on a particular research area or topic which several departments, programmes and researchers share. This node, Mind and Nature (2013), studies the relationships between individuals, society and the environment in the form of spatial and temporal analyses. The aim is to understand the interaction between humans and the environment in history and contemporary times. Also, the node updates the research community with developments in technical skills, e.g. through software-workshops, primarily in the GIS-labs.

By recruiting selected students to the node, researchers are able to include master’s students in their own research. The student’s dissertation topic is framed according to the current research topic of the researcher, who serves as supervisor. The student thus becomes involved in up-to-date research projects and the supervisor is enabled to invest teaching and tutoring effort in the master’s student who by her/his own studies supports the work of the researcher.

The Node is organised and quality assured by a researcher, but most activities and communication is conducted through reliance on student participation. Students decide on which workshops, lecturers and literature readings would be beneficial to them within the framework of the node. Students are the Node’s resource, both for its organisation and for the individual research conducted within its framework. As the researchers keep the node updated with state of the art research projects, so the master’s students’ organisation of its activities keep the node adapted to current needs. Students are also involved in mentoring new, and prospective, master’s students, e.g. in workshops, lab-work, reading.

Apart from this, the node has quarterly meetings in which the research area is discussed from different vantage points of the departments, programmes and networks involved in it, allowing current projects to have updates on relevant research fields and new collaborations to take form.

What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?

Through the Bologna Process, Uppsala University has set out to create master’s programmes with international outreach and a defined plan for retention, quality and professionalism. For this purpose, the nodes were created as a means for researchers and students of different disciplines but dealing with similar questions, to meet and collaborate.

For the node Mind and Nature, there are several departments involved: Department of  Archival Science, Library & Information Science, and Museum & Heritage Studies (ALM), Department of Archaeology & Ancient History, Centre for Gender Research, Department of Art History, Department of History of Science and ideas, The Hugo Valentin Centre and Department of Cultural Anthroplogy and Ethnology.

Along with these are the master’s programmes in ALM, global environmental history, Holocaust and Genocide Studies as well as several international networks and Swedish universities engaged in similar topics and questions.

What made/makes it “masters” level?

The node allows students to become involved in state of the art research and contribute directly to the researchers involved in their intellectual adolescence. Researchers support students since students support current research at the institution.

The master’s students of the node are then supported, and expected, to commit to state of the art research among other researchers, e.g. write publications, apply for grants and organise workshops, seminars and conferences. In short, by the end of the master’s programme the student will be prepared for subsequent doctoral studies and to partake in a community of peers.

Several of the master’s students have contributed papers to international conferences and successfully applied for travel grants as well as co-authored articles on related topics with supervisors and researchers connected to the node.

A central component is that students are considered part of the research community to a larger degree than undergraduate students. Access to kitchen facilities for preparation of food, tea and coffee is not of trivial importance but actually improves the master’s student’s sense of collegiality. Discussions at the lunch table, staying on until late work hours in the study or the GIS-lab, is central to developing excellence among master’s students of the node.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful t?o others

Student participation needs to be cultivated early on. The first time nodes were organised it required strong advocates to assemble researchers into the node and to make students participate on more autonomous terms than they previously were used to. Once students begin organised activities within the node, they can be trained and supported to pass responsibilities on among themselves, although mentorship by the researchers is central to making the effort worthwhile.

In terms of autonomy, the students become dependent on the research project of their supervisor. However, the students could usually choose among several supervisors and projects. The tutoring researchers also provide stability and momentum that many students requested. As projects progress, the students become aware that uncertainty is part of all research projects, sharing and dealing with complexity between themselves and with their supervisors.

The challenge involved is essentially to encourage students not to think “outside of the box” in terms of research, but “around” it. State of the art research is conducted by students who are skilled in the literature field, theories and relevant methodologies for pursuing enquiries and studies. These constitute “the box”, and new findings emerge when students and researchers linger at its edges, aware of what is known, contested, and original. From this perspective, it is legitimate to involve master’s students in current, or emerging, research projects based on the expertise of supervisors. Tutoring students towards the edges of the box takes time from the supervisor, and much effort from the student, which is a process that should be of benefit to all parties involved.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

Following the framework “Facets of Mastersness” (SHEEC, 2013 after Warring, 2011), it is important to linger here on Professionalism and Depth, as its emphasis will vary depending on the master’s programme. In the Humanities, my field of expertise, the goal should be to develop means by which students can develop vocations outside the academy, as indeed many do after graduating.

The next step of the nodes, or similar frameworks, should be to support students in bridging their knowledge towards society and labour market in general. Applying research outside of the academy is part of its complexity, a process that may benefit both the quality of the research process as well as the students themselves in choosing between future careers.

Though node research may support the depth and academic professionalism of master’s students, the narrow focus on current research projects may limit development of breadth and professionalism outside of the academy.

For this purpose, connections and communication between university administration and Node leadership, primarily that conducted by the students, should increase. Administration has more knowledge of collaborations with civil society, public and private companies, which could be integrated into the node through the student’s engagement and work in potential internships, case studies or joint conferences on shared issues.

Thus, node work must continually, and increasingly, be organised by the master’s students to ensure that its activities remain open to application outside the scope of what its researchers already know. This might also bring new skills and expanded networks into the academy through its master’s students.

References

Contact

Johan Gärdebo, Mst in Environmental History
Department of History, Uppsala University
Email: johan.gardebo@gmail.com