A PhD: training for life?

For postgraduates who feel they lack practical employment skills, MRes could be the answer. Stephen Pritchard reports
Click to follow
A POSTGRADUATE degree does not guarantee a job in academic research. Rising postgraduate numbers, changing employment patterns, and restrictions on university budgets mean that more than half of doctoral students will look for a career outside the university system. For students on taught masters' programmes, the numbers are even greater.

The strengths of a higher degree are in research training, rather than more conventional employment skills. Over the last few years, the research councils and universities have been working to ensure that students who opt to continue their careers in industry have the tools they need, not only for the job itself but also for the job search.

Teamwork, communications, time management and leadership are some of the 'transferable skills' that universities want their postgraduates to develop. This is in addition to the skills they need to manage their own research for a period of three or four years.

In its 1993 White Paper, Realising our Potential, the Office of Science and Technology called on universities to make transferable skills part of the curriculum for postgraduates. At the same time, it created pilots for a new type of degree, the Master of Research (MRes). The MRes will teach research methods, but it also emphasise the need for supporting, employment-related skills. Universities are now extending training developed for the MRes pilots to other groups, particularly PhD students.

"The MRes pilots have been very successful in developing employment-related skills," says Bob Price, director of human resources at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. "We have used that experience to ask departments which have quota places [research-council funded] for PhD students to adopt a template."

The BBSRC, Mr Price says, does not dictate the exact methods or content for the training, but the research council stresses its importance to universities.

Skills training aims to develop the qualities employers want from graduates, but also to open students' eyes to career opportunities that they may not have considered. By the time a student reaches the final year of a doctorate, he or she will have spent six years or more within the university system. Doctoral candidates often overlook skills such as time management, taking the initiative, or managing budgets that are frequently part of a successful PhD. They may wrongly assume they have little to offer recruiters outside academia.

Commercial companies, even in research-based fields such as pharmaceuticals, point out that graduates, including those with PhDs, do lack employment skills, especially team work and communication.

"They are going to have work with people in teams," explains Dr Michael Elves, director of science and education affairs at Glaxo Wellcome. "The British PhD works against that because it is an individual effort."

He points out that numeracy, report writing and up to date IT skills are vital - but they are skills that need to be developed for most walks of life, not just for industry. Research students also benefit from contact with industry, and commercial companies' ways of thinking, even if they stay in academic research.

Transferable skills training takes the form of either regular sessions or week-long courses; some research councils organise residential programmes with universities that bring students together from different disciplines, and different universities. Students who have been on courses say this is one of the most beneficial elements.

There are concerns, especially among doctoral students, that additional courses detract from the real business of research. PhD students are under pressure to complete their theses within three years, publish papers and gain teaching experience. Skills training can seem an additional burden. However, the reaction from students who have taken the courses is usually the opposite: they demand more, not less training.

Done well, transferable skills training should benefit postgraduates in their studies as well as in their career plans. Much of the work is as useful within universities as outside.

Presenting research, writing reports and managing a team are part of the day to day work of lecturers and researchers. PhD students who do stay within the university system can quickly find themselves with management as well as academic responsibilities.

"Students who have completed the courses are more employable, and better scientists," explains Dave Cummings, of Manchester University's training and development unit. Manchester runs courses through its Graduate School in Science, Engineering and Medicine, both for PhD students, and as part of its MRes programme.

Manchester, along with other universities with substantial numbers of research students, extends its training to all research students, not just those with research council funding. Manchester has also extended the course to social science postgraduates.

"The course allows students to move forward into different areas more easily, because they are more willing to question," says Mr Cummings.

Manchester's courses are multi-disciplinary, and aim to change the way students communicate, and work in teams.

Academics have a reputation as brilliant thinkers but poor communicators. "They may have the attributes, but they don't know how to use them or even that they have them," he says. "Very few don't have them."

Careful training brings out the skills, with the result that students should have a better chance of a rewarding career, in the universities or in industry.