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Rachel Spronken-Smith 2022 imageBSc(Hons) and PGDTT (Otago), PhD (British Columbia)

Tel +64 3 470 4682

About Rachel

Rachel is a professor in Higher Education and Geography and works as an academic developer in HEDC. She initially trained as a geographer, taking up a lecturing position at the University of Canterbury, where she worked for nine years after returning from completing her PhD in British Columbia. Her teaching has been recognised with a University of Canterbury Teaching Award in 2002, an OUSA Supervision Award in 2012, a University of Otago Teaching Award in 2013 and a national Sustained Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015.

While studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Tertiary Teaching through HEDC at Otago, Rachel became more interested in aspects of learning and teaching and was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in HEDC in 2004. She worked as an academic developer and was Head of HEDC from 2009–2012. In 2016 she won the TERNZ-HERDSA medal for Sustained Contribution to the Research Environment in New Zealand, and was also awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award for research in the US on graduate outcomes for PhD candidates. She was the inaugural Dean of the Graduate Research School from 2013–2022.

Research Interests

Rachel's interests in higher education research include doctoral education and outcomes, learning through inquiry and undergraduate research, the teaching-research nexus, curriculum change, graduate attributes and aspects of the student experience. She regularly undertakes consultancy work for university and polytechnic staff wishing to undertake curriculum renewal, especially when the focus is on embedding inquiry in curricula.


Rachel is especially keen to supervise postgraduates in higher education who want to research on inquiry or undergraduate research, as well as graduate attributes and doctoral education.

Current students

  • James Windle – Learning and assessment connections occurring between the undergraduate years of the Otago BPharm degree and pre-registration internship, a longitudinal study. (2013-; part-time)

Recently completed and past PhD candidates

  • Nantida Sripaoraya – Participation in science outreach and its impacts on programme presenters (2017–2021)
  • Senorita John – Mining reality to explore the 21st century student experience (2016–2019)
  • Miriam Gibson – Making Meaning: The role of activity in learning (2015–2020 part-time)
  • Lee Adam – Troubling plagiarism: University students' understandings of plagiarism (Exceptional thesis) (2013–15)
  • Russell Butson – The office: the impact of the digital revolution on the office practices of early career academics (2012–2019; part-time)
  • Jono Conway – Synoptic and surface interactions in an alpine glacier (2010-2014)
  • Joanna Joseph – Critical pedagogy in Higher Education (2011-2014)
  • Adisorn Juntrasook – Leadership with/out position (Exceptional thesis) (2009-13)
  • Sharon Sharmini – Assessing publication-based doctoral theses (2012-16)
  • Donna Smith – Perceptions of degree-based massage therapy education (2012-14)


In 2022, Rachel is transitioning back into HEDC after her time in the Graduate Research School. She is on research and study leave for the year, returning to teaching postgraduate courses and facilitating workshops for students and academics in 2023.


Ongoing projects include

  • Exploring the experiences of doctoral candidates studying with an impairment, disability or chronic illness
  • The impact of COVID-19 on the mobility and career trajectories of doctoral graduates in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Graduate outcomes and career preparedness for PhD candidates
  • The doctoral curriculum
  • Supporting academic writing in research candidates
  • More structured approaches to the development of transferable and professional skills in PhD candidates

Past projects include

  • Graduate outcomes – are they driving learning? (Nationally-funded, multi-institutional research)
  • Inquiry-based learning in undergraduate education in New Zealand (Nationally-funded, multi-institutional research)
  • The Matariki Undergraduate Research Network (international research-collaboration)
  • Doctoral attrition
  • Institution-wide curriculum change (international research-collaboration)
  • Gender in academia


Spronken-Smith, R., Brown, K., & Cameron, C. (2024). Retrospective perceptions of support for career development among PhD graduates from US and New Zealand universities. Studies in Graduate & Postdoctoral Education. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1108/SGPE-05-2023-0048 Journal - Research Article

Mason, S., Frick, L., Castelló, M., Cheng, W., Chong, S. W., Díaz Villalba, L., … Spronken-Smith, R., & Weise, C. (2024). Prominence, promotion and positioning of the ‘Thesis by Publication’ in six countries. Higher Education Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1057/s41307-024-00350-7 Journal - Research Article

Butson, R., & Spronken-Smith, R. (2024). AI and its implications for research in higher education: A critical dialogue. Higher Education Research & Development, 43(3), 563-577. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2023.2280200 Journal - Research Article

Spronken-Smith, R., Brown, K., & Cameron, C. (2024). Perceptions of graduate attribute development and application in PhD graduates from US and NZ universities. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 49(1), 86-101. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2023.2182873 Journal - Research Article

Spronken-Smith, R. (2023, November). Navigating your development as a researcher. Keynote presentation at the Graduate Research Student Symposium, Dunedin, New Zealand. Conference Contribution - Verbal presentation and other Conference outputs

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