Postgraduate Courses: Prepared for life beyond the laboratory: PhDs in science and engineering are learning to use their communications and teamworking skills. Liz Heron reports

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE, the minister responsible for science, made the views of employers the touchstone of his proposals for reforming the training of scientists, published in a White Paper in May.

Employers have been complaining that PhDs are overspecialised and lack communication and teamworking skills, so Mr Waldegrave plans to make the broader MSc the normal initial postgraduate qualification and have fewer postgraduates going on to take PhDs. However, evidence from training courses for PhDs run by the Science and Engineering Research Council for the past 36 years, with finance and support from government, suggests that employers may be wrong in their assessment of PhDs.

Each year the SERC puts hundreds of PhDs through intensive one-week 'graduate schools' designed to make them aware of the range of communications and teamworking skills that postgraduate study has, in fact, equipped them with. Dr Janet Metcalfe, SERC graduate schools manager, says: 'There is a misconception about the transpersonal skills that postgraduates have. We are not teaching them these skills, we are making them aware of the skills they already have. They can then make the transfer to using them in industry.'

Dr Metcalfe insists that PhDs have a wide range of skills relevant to industry that are not being recognised. 'I did a science PhD and, in contrast to my first degree, it completely transformed me,' she says. 'When you go into a PhD, you've got three years of nothing ahead of you. You quickly develop very strong skills in terms of organising your own time, setting objectives, reviewing what you have done, evaluating whether you are on the right track and being able to work on your own.

'Most people doing science PhDs also develop teamwork skills without necessarily being conscious of it. They may have to argue for lab space or negotiate with their supervisor to give them equipment.'

Senior managers from a wide range of private companies and public-sector organisations are brought in by the SERC to run the schools. This year executives from ICI, Procter & Gamble, the Department of Trade and Industry, Coutts & Co and the Civil Service College were involved, while younger managers acted as tutors and assistants.

The 90 doctoral students who attend each school are split into 10 groups. Each groups is assigned a young 'executive' - either a graduate or a postgraduate, who works with the teams on their assignments; and a tutor - an older manager with experience of being an 'executive' at a previous graduate school, who teaches and sets assignments. During a very intensive week, groups of students address problems common to industry, commerce and the public sector through management games, as well as exploring their interests and developing ways of promoting themselves to employers through careers exercises.

Mary Whitty, chief executive of Brent and Harrow Health Authority, who led a school at Brunel University, Uxbridge, says: 'We are trying to sensitise students to the problems and issues they are likely to come across in work and to develop their insight about themselves, their abilities and the options available to them.'

Students at Brunel decided how to invest money earmarked for primary health care; developed a research and development policy for a plastics company; negotiated a solution to an airline staffing dispute; sorted out a bicycle company that had bought the wrong information technology package, and negotiated an EC agreement on controls for toxic emissions from factories.

About 17,000 PhDs have been through a graduate school since the SERC began the programme in 1967, and demand currently outstrips the number of places available by three to one. Places are distributed on a first come, first served basis and doctoral students are funded by their institutions out of money made available for them to attend academic conferences.

A survey by Dr Metcalfe for the SERC last year found that 55 per cent of PhDs attending graduate schools changed their career intentions as a result and that 73 per cent were inclined towards careers outside academic research. And 76 per cent of those who had attended a graduate school three to five years previously found that skills which were reinforced there were still useful in their jobs.

Doctoral students also found that the schools had a positive impact on their academic work; and 57 per cent of 1992 students felt the graduate school had improved their efficiency and time management in research. Many commented that they interacted better with their groups and were more positive about their PhDs.

This year the SERC has increased the number of schools from 10 to 14 and is developing new types of graduate schools. A course for engineers is being designed to help students to develop interpersonal skills. 'Engineers tend to be vocationally committed and are less interested in help with looking at a career, but industry has said that their interpersonal skills need to be improved,' Dr Metcalfe says.

The council is working on a course focused on how to achieve excellence in innovation, an issue relevant both to university researchers and industry. This school will be interdisciplinary and will tackle the problem in a philosophical way. 'We're also looking at running a graduate school in conjunction with a university,' Dr Metcalfe says. 'We would provide a graduate school within the institution, which would not just be for those with specific career objectives but would be part of PhDs' general instruction.' The aim is to encourage universities to undertake more training of PhDs themselves.

The SERC is now committed to enabling all the PhD students it funds to attend graduate schools, and bookings from other research councils - notably the Economic and Social Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council - are increasing. Nor is the splitting of the SERC into separate councils - for astronomy and particle physics and for physical science and engineering - likely to derail the expansion. 'There is no reason why we shouldn't provide this service to all the research councils,' Dr Metcalfe says.

And if the one-week schools are so effective in bringing out in PhD students the skills employers are demanding, they may offer a cheaper and simpler alternative to the total overhaul of postgraduate study called for in the White Paper.

(Photograph omitted)