Weighing the benefits of research training

Philip Scofield looks at a new degree designed to help students to develop their research skills
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The Independent Online
In 1993, the Government proposed that most graduates hoping to study for a PhD should first take a masters degree in research (MRes). The course would provide training in research techniques and in the transferable skills employers want. Why was the idea dropped so soon? And why are several universities now designing MRes courses?

The importance of transferable skills was restated recently by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, in a submission to the Secretary of State for Education's Review of Higher Education. "Although Higher Education should not be regarded as just a route to better-paid employment, the process should encourage the skills necessary for graduates to adapt rapidly to the world of work," it said.

It added that employers need graduates who can contribute to the business sooner and that selection criteria are focusing more on these skills.

Changes to the PhD were proposed as far back as 1968, when a working group of the Committee on Manpower Resources for Science and Technology recommended that "universities should examine the nature and purpose of the PhD from first principles and consider drastic action to bring within its scope other forms of post-graduate training more closely related to the needs of industry".

The Advisory Board for the Research Councils proposed the MRes as a precursor to a PhD in February 1993. This view was endorsed three months later in the Government's White Paper on Science, Engineering and Technology. It also said the Government would "like to see steps taken to ensure that the research training itself is more closely related to the needs of potential employers". It also supported the Royal Society's view that PhD training should be more flexible and versatile and "should include elements of non-science-specific training and at the very least should include communication skills and, where appropriate, the management of human, material and financial resources".

This programme was seen to offer three advantages: more students would be able undertake a master's degree that would give them vocationally valuable skills; students would be better able to assess whether or not they are suited to continue with research leading to a PhD; and universities would be better able to assess the suitability of applicants for PhD training.

The universities disliked the proposal. Michael Powell, senior administrative officer with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principles, said the committee was "not keen on the idea in the terms in which it was presented. We wanted it much more flexible; we didn't want it as a mandatory requirement, and we didn't see why students shouldn't receive research training in the course of their three-year PhD.

"We also pointed out that there are a number of four-year undergraduate degree courses which now lead to enhanced first-degree qualifications - in some cases called Master in Engineering, Master in Physics or whatever," Mr Powell said. "In the fourth year of these kind of courses, graduates gain quite a bit of training in research and an opportunity to do a research project." He added that universities have a variety of ways in which they can build the kinds of skills the White Paper was talking about into a PhD programme.

"It doesn't require a separate Master of Research. However, we did know that several universities were quite keen on the MRes idea, so we didn't rule it out. But we said it should not be mandatory."

"We were also concerned that a lot of people who go into a PhD after a first degree actually want to get on with their research," Mr Powell said. "We also thought that a Master of Research could be seen as a failed PhD."

He also noted the cost to students in funding an extra year's study, and to universities, which would have to provide the MRes from existing resources. This would cut the number of PhDs, in turn cutting the amont of research universities could do.

Faced with these arguments, the Government has agreed that MRes should not be mandatory. There needs to be a flexible approach, but some universities might want to put on MRes courses. It has asked the Research Councils to set up some pilot schemes and invite universities to make proposals.

Several universities now provide formal training in research for PhD students. Anticipating the Government's proposals, University College London initiated the UCL Graduate School in 1992. This provides formal training in research skills through an induction programme of short courses. These cover research strategies and methods, library technology, computer skills and statistics and other topics. The programme also provides courses in presentation and other transferable skills.

UCL is now designing several MRes courses funded by three Research Councils. Professor Jeffrey Jowell QC, head of the UCL Graduate School, said these have been sponsored "in a different way to that envisaged by the White Paper. They have now allocated funds for MRes as degrees in their own right."

Professor Jowell added: "People who call themselves researchers should be trained in the techniques of research, not only in their narrow field but also in such areas as interpersonal skills, organisational skills, the law relating to intellectual property."

Although MRes degrees will stand alone, Professor Jowell sees them as a desirable precurser to some PhD courses: "I hope the MRes may, in appropriate cases, lead to a different type of PhD."

How graduates and employers will welcome the MRes has yet to be seen. "Where graduates want to do research and are assured the programme provides the necessary training in research techniques and transferable skills ... they'll go straight into a PhD," added Michael Powell. He said the chemical and pharmaceutical industries want PhDs and the engineering industry is developing its own doctorate. "So it is difficult to see who will actually be interested in an MRes."

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