Supporting pathways to PhDs for Indigenous researchers

The Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne delivers an annual program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be considering a health-focused PhD. The Centre is in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and is philanthropically funded to support and build Indigenous health leadership.

The Poche Indigenous PhD Familiarisation Program began in 2015 to provide tailored support to prospective Indigenous students, a response to an identified gap in doctoral pathways for this cohort. It sits within a web of PhD support offerings for Indigenous students across the University, which include the Professional Certificate in Indigenous Research and Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Research and Leadership.

Associate Professor Shawana Andrews, Director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health says "Indigenous peoples have a long intellectual tradition informed by a strong knowledge economy, yet they have not always been welcomed within academic environments."

“It was 1980 before the first Indigenous person, Bill Jonas, graduated with a doctorate from the University of Papua New Guinea,” she says. “This deliberate exclusion has limited the higher education social capital available to prospective Indigenous PhD scholars, making support and connections into universities or doctoral studies a priority.”

“Our research, Enabling higher degree pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, demonstrates the value of our program in the provision of the social capital required for success at  the doctoral level of higher education, which includes access to Indigenous academics, networking with peers, and knowledge of academic systems and environments.

The research was co-authored with Warwick Padgham, Manager of Indigenous Student Programs and Senior Research Fellow Odette Mazel.

Warwick Padgham says the program, a key driver of the increasing numbers of Indigenous PhD scholars both at the University of Melbourne and across other institutions, privileges Indigenous ways of being, doing and knowing.”

“Held in person in Narrm, this program is grounded in Indigenous understandings of place and relationality,” he explains.

“Through practical workshops, prospective scholars explore the research degree process, including enrolment and research proposals, and discuss their motivations for doing a PhD, their career trajectory and aspirations.

“The cohort experience connects participants as they uncover how their research ideas, expertise, knowledges and skills fit within the academy.”

The paper draws from the experiences of program participants and existing literature and participants have reported that having access to the necessary information about undertaking a PhD and the opportunity to connect with others, helped to build confidence.

It completely made me feel empowered to enrol, that I could do this even though none of my family have done any formal education. I felt there were some really great supports available to be successful and help me in any areas I may struggle in. And, most importantly I felt a sense of community, belonging and that I was welcomed.” – Program participant

“This research reinforces the message that Indigenous-led and tailored programs, and initiatives that engender an experience of belonging, remain at the heart of Indigenous graduate research success,” Associate Professor Andrews says.

Strong Indigenous leadership and research in universities and beyond

Evidence and experience shows that advances in Indigenous health require strong Indigenous leadership and Indigenous-led research, the authors say.

“There is a growing Indigenous professoriate across Australia, and many Indigenous professionals are seeing the value of research as a career choice,” Odette Mazel says, “and undertaking a PhD can be an act of self-determination for these scholars, as they pursue research interests for and with Indigenous communities, instead of on or about Indigenous communities.”

“Universities and Indigenous communities alike are benefiting from the growth of Indigenous research leadership. We have seen in our own research, and the research undertaken by Indigenous PhD Scholars in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, that when Indigenous peoples’ research aspirations are realised, Indigenous communities benefit.

“It is our contention that as knowledge producers, universities have an obligation to support Indigenous academic and intellectual development. Ongoing work to support Indigenous PhD scholars’ studies is pragmatic and necessary for this to succeed across the academy,” Odette says.

While the Poche Indigenous PhD Familiarisation Program is currently funded through a philanthropic grant, the authors hope that by proving its value in encouraging prospective Indigenous PhD candidates, institutions across the country will begin to support such programs as core university business.

First published on 26 October 2023.

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