Mindsets for postgraduate research: Developing doctoral intelligence

Research quality concerns could stem partly from students enrolling for advanced degrees, because of the competitive work environment without awareness of the unique nature of education at this level. A clearer understanding about the mindsets needed for PGR in general and the doctorate specifically is thus necessary. Just as there are debates about attributes for the doctorate or attributes due to the doctorate, there are debates about inherent intelligence and the ability to develop intelligence (Sternberg, 2000). Intelligence in this context refers to the broad cognitive and behavioural mental tools or mindsets for problem-solving for an innovative PhD contribution.

Based on the analogous link to cultural intelligence (Earley & Ang, 2003), doctoral intelligence refers to the four mindsets of knowing, doing, thinking and willing needed for the PhD. The knowing and doing domains are the aspects usually focused on during formal doctoral education. Knowing refers to the foundational disciplinary and research methodology knowledge, whilst doing reflects rigor in application during PGR. Developing expertise in these two domains contributes to candidates becoming authentic credible voices in their discipline.

What is often less explicitly acknowledged is the thinking and willing mindsets. The thinking mindset refers to higher mental order strategies for producing high quality research. Therefore, deep information processing and continual questioning of assumptions to adjust mental models for the generation of principles is required. The willing mindset refers to motivation and open-mindedness to persevere during the knowledge creation process. These habits of mind are stirred by curiosity and continual discovery during PGR. Intellectual humility, the realistic appraisal of strengths and weaknesses, keeps the researcher engaged and invested in finding quality credible solutions to problems, both during their formal studies and beyond. Devotion to the acquisition of knowledge provides the fuel for producing lifelong researchers.

What strategies can be included to foster the development of the necessary mindsets?

  • Knowing: Provide discipline and research educational programmes for foundational knowledge so candidates can gain a legitimate voice in the scholarly discourse. Create opportunities to share development of ideas.
  • Doing: Focus on justification for research decisions and accountability for quality and rigor during practice. Present work in progress with feedback opportunities.
  • Thinking: Use of mental tools, such as conceptual frameworks, mind maps and Socratic questioning to challenge ideas and enhance divergent and convergent thinking. Testing, defending and adjusting thinking is enhanced during collective activities.
  • Willing: Both passion and purpose are needed. Foster open-mindedness, curiosity and love of knowledge but with a larger purpose of developing skills to also make a quality contribution beyond the PhD.

It is important to not only focus on the research product for the qualification, but to actively encourage the thinking and willing domains fostered through the process of knowledge creation, and in so-doing, contribute to the development of quality researchers to impact society after graduation.

Ruth Albertyn has been involved in research capacity development at universities in South Africa, Africa and Europe over three decades. Affiliated to Stellenbosch University, her research focuses on doctoral education and postgraduate supervision. Her article conceptualising doctoral intelligence provides postgraduate research (PGR) development insights.
Twitter: @RuthAlbertyn
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Earley, P.C. & Ang, S. (2003). Cultural intelligence: Individual interactions across cultures. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (2000). The concept of intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 3–16). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

3 thoughts on “Mindsets for postgraduate research: Developing doctoral intelligence

  1. ‘Developing doctoral intelligence’ also requires student confidence that their supervisors are trustworthy, engaged, empathetic and available when needed. Independent study is expected at PG level, but this shouldn’t equate to the student being left to swing in the ether, without a safety net.


  2. Pingback: Weekly Resource Roundup – 21/7/2022 |

  3. Pingback: Crynodeb Wythnosol o Adnoddau – 21/7/2022 |

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