Rachel Spronken-Smith is a Professor in Higher Education and Geography and Dean of the Graduate Research School at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She is a past Head of the Higher Education Development Centre, where she worked as an academic staff developer. She initially trained as a geographer and first worked as a research meteorologist with the New Zealand Meteorological Service. She did her PhD in Geography at the University of British Columbia, specialising in urban climatology, and then lectured in Geography at the University of Canterbury, NZ for nine years. Rachel completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Tertiary Teaching in 2002, and moved into Higher Education at the University of Otago in 2004.
Rachel has led national projects on inquiry-based learning and graduate attributes and also has research interests in curriculum change and doctoral education. In her current position she provides leadership for graduate research education, and is continuing her research and teaching in higher education, with occasional teaching in geography. As well as running professional development sessions for both supervisors and postgraduate students, she does consultancy work on learning through inquiry-based learning and facilitating curriculum renewal. She continues to supervise PhD candidates, mainly in higher education. Her teaching has been recognised with teaching awards at both the University of Canterbury and the University of Otago, and in 2015 she was awarded a national tertiary teaching award for sustained excellence in teaching. In 2016 she won the TERNZ-HERDSA medal for Sustained Contribution to the Research Environment in New Zealand. She is currently the Chair of the New Zealand universities Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies.
Rachel’s research will compare how PhD training in the US and NZ is preparing PhD graduates for employment. The US has coursework and research, while the NZ system is research-only, yet similar graduate outcomes are expected. A comparative case study between the USA (University of California Berkeley and University of California Davis), and New Zealand (University of Otago) will include surveys and interviews of PhD graduates to determine how their PhD training developed graduate attributes, and their application of these attributes at work. Employers will be surveyed and interviewed to get their views on the preparation of PhD students for employment. By comparing the two cases insights will be gained into the pros and cons of each approach, leading to mutual learning for the universities.