Postgraduates: A PhD is not only for the lonely: Universities are responding to calls for doctorate training to be made more flexible. Philip Schofield reports

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The Independent Online
The path of postgraduate research students is traditionally solitary, long and often stony. With no mandatory grants, money can be difficult. Standards of supervision vary and research methods and other basic skills have been 'picked up' on the way.

Moreover, newly qualified PhDs find that employers in higher education and industrial research can take on only a minority of them. Employers in other sectors rarely rate doctorates as much more useful than a first degree.

Postgraduate education originally provided training for future teachers and researchers in higher education. Most students undertook research for a doctorate. More recently, the need for high levels of specialist knowledge in other areas, particularly industry, had led to a huge expansion in higher education and a large increase in the number of doctorates. However, there has been a far more explosive growth in the number of taught courses leading to postgraduate diplomas and master's degrees, which many employers see as having higher vocational value.

The Government's 1993 White Paper on science, engineering and technology - 'Realising our potential' - welcomed the growth in postgraduate courses, but noted that 'the traditional PhD does not always match up to the needs of a career outside research in academia or an industrial research laboratory'. It endorsed the view of the Royal Society that PhD training should be more flexible and versatile, and that 'this should include elements of non-science-specific training and, at the very least, communication skills and, where appropriate, the management of human, material and financial resources'.

The Government, which would 'like to see steps taken to ensure that the research training itself is more closely related to the needs of potential employers', supports the recommendation of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils that a year spent undertaking a formal master's degree in research should be the normal precursor to registration for a PhD.

This three-one-three years' programme leading to a PhD is seen to have three advantages: more students can undertake a master's degree which will give them vocationally valuable skills; they will be better able to assess whether they are suited to proceed with research leading to a PhD; and universities will be better able to assess the suitability of applicants for PhD training.

The more innovative universities had already anticipated the need to give better support to their research students and also to provide them with a portfolio of 'transferable skills' which would make them more attractive to all types of employers. In 1992, University College London (UCL), ranked third of all multi-faculty institutions in the national research ratings, initiated the UCL Graduate School, to 'provide a single focus for all graduate studies in the College . . . to enhance the standards of supervision and the range of graduate studies . . . to promote course work, especially during the first year of graduate studies'.

All incoming research students are now provided with formal training in the skills needed to conduct research successfully, through an induction programme of short courses spread over their first three terms. These cover a range of topics, which include research strategies and methods, library technology, computer skills and statistics. The programme also provides courses in presentation and other transferable skills.

Foreign language training is also available where needed for research purposes. So far this has included Russian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Swahili. Overseas students who do not have English as their first language can take courses in thesis writing.

A code of practice for graduate research degrees sets out the basic structure, procedures and responsibilities for all departments. The aim is to ensure that all students are effectively supervised. So, for example, students have a subsidiary supervisor to look after them if their principal supervisor is away. The code not only sets out the responsibilities of heads of departments, postgraduate tutors and principal and subsidiary supervisors, but also of the students themselves.

Anyone wishing to study for a PhD at UCL, unless already awarded a master's degree, must register initially for the MPhil. After one year, if the supervisor is satisfied that the quality and originality of the work warrant it, the student can transfer registration to the PhD retrospectively. In effect this provides a three-one-two years' programme, offering many of the advantages of the three-one- three years' PhD favoured by the Government. However, UCL is clearly prepared to develop its postgraduate research courses.

In Universe, UCL's external magazine, the provost, Dr Derek Roberts, writes: 'We are committed to an increased taught element in PhD training. This is one of the major themes of the UCL Graduate School. We welcome the discussions around the possible introductions of a master's in research degree and the three-one-three years' programme to a PhD award, as stimulated by the Office of Science and Technology's White Paper.'

In the context of undergraduate as well as postgraduate education, he adds: 'We have embraced the concept of personal transferable skills as part of our Enterprise in Higher Education programme.'

To further support its graduate students, the school administers funds to meet unforeseen expenses not covered by other sources. Last year, these enabled research students to collect manuscript material from Vienna, examine archives in Italy, initiate research collaboration in Israel, and present their research at conferences in New York, Sri Lanka, Florida and Paris.

A recently formed Graduate Society, funded by the school, arranges regular events at which graduate students can meet socially, attend evening talks, and exchange ideas and experiences. It also publishes a quarterly newsletter.

As well as improving the quality of its postgraduate education, and providing its PhDs with transferable skills that should make them attractive to employers in all sectors, the school encourages research in new areas.

Modern research increasingly crosses traditional academic boundaries, and the graduate school is promoting inter-departmental and cross-faculty studies. Two areas of interest are environmental problems and public sector management.

In anticipating many government proposals to improve research training, UCL clearly aims to maintain its reputation for quality research. As Dr Roberts says: 'Few can doubt that, given an inevitable concentration of research funds in a minority of 'research universities', UCL will remain a member of that minority, no matter how small.'