Between 1948 and 2007 approximately 12 per cent of all PhDs awarded in Australia were in the field of engineering. Against a backdrop of continued workforce recruiting difficulties in Australia and a large international cohort of students enrolled in engineering PhDs, there has been an upward trend in enrolments since the turn of the century: by 2011 more than 10,000 degrees have been awarded in the field (Dobson, 2011) indicating a significant investment in the discipline and the professional workforce. It is evident that research programs leading to doctorates in engineering are a particular feature of Australian university engineering faculties (Engineers Australia, 2011).
PhDs are often seen as the apex of formal educational qualification, however, in the Engineering field, with the call for doctoral education to become more industry focused, and the global pressure for innovation supported by research, there exists a need to critically assess what PhDs by research are bringing into the broad picture of higher education and how the program structure and examination process can ensure the best quality outcome for candidates and Australia as a whole.
This paper draws on two studies of examination funded by the ARC between 2002 and 2010, which found that examiner reports in Engineering, even though share similarities with other Broad Fields of Study, differ in emphasis placed on elements such as scope, significance, breadth and depth of literature review, and the approach and reporting of the thesis. In these ARC studies, engineering reports amounted to approximately 8% of the total of 2121 examiner reports for the 804 candidates. The research we present in this paper investigates the characteristics sought by engineering examiners in this cohort which contribute to a successful PhD, and in what ways the examiner comments reflect what is expected of engineering doctorates in the areas of research training, quality and contribution to the field. We will further provide an analysis of how these expectations tie in with the prospective career paths of graduates.