Research studentships: Talents you can take anywhere

Transferable skills are the universities' new growth area. By Stephen Pritchard

David Cummings is a lecturer who believes in participation. This exuberant Scot eschews the remote lecturing style of the traditional tutor. Instead, Mr Cummings asks his students to participate actively in his sessions, with role-playing, group exercises and presentations in front of the class. Students liken him to Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets' Society because, like Williams's character, the passionate English teacher John Keating, Mr Cummings believes in firing his class's enthusiasm.

But then Mr Cummings is not in the conventional academic mould. His background is in business: he worked in commercial training before taking a degree at Edinburgh as a mature student.

He now teaches transferable skills at Manchester University's Graduate School in Science, Engineering and Medicine. Universities are realising that developing academic ability alone is no longer enough. Research students now also need skills usually associated with the business world. They must be able to communicate, work as a team and present their work clearly, in non-specialist language.

Manchester's transferable skills course reflects this. Communications form a large part of the syllabus. During the taught sessions, which usually last two days, students cover both verbal and non-verbal communications. This includes body language - vital both for teaching and giving presentations at conferences - and listening. Active listening, Mr Cummings believes, is just as important as any other skill, but one we too often take for granted.

Scientists have a reputation as poor communicators, and the course at Manchester addresses this. It also recognises that today's PhD students will be tomorrow's leaders in their fields, whether in academic research or industry. So the programme covers leadership and team work, taught through simulations. This is supported by skills such as presentation techniques and time management; students will often make use of these straight away in their thesis work.

Manchester's programme covers all the disciplines within the Graduate School in Science, Engineering and Medicine. Mr Cummings puts students into mixed groups: engineers with biochemists, informatics researchers with medical students. Working with strangers tests the skills he teaches, and it has the added benefit of bringing the different disciplines within the school closer together. Students quickly have the chance to test out the material, as the second part of the course is a group project, completed in the students' own time.

Currently, the skills course is compulsory for MRes (Master of Research) students and "highly recommended" for PhD students. Next year, it is likely to be compulsory for them too. The university might also extend the programme to other faculties, such as social science.

According to students at Manchester, Mr Cummings' style has been a breath of fresh air. PhD students in particular benefited from the emphasis on planning and time management. The course uses methods that are common in business: students have to participate, and there is a strong emphasis on putting skills into practice with the group.

Students' reactions are generally positive. "The course gave me the confidence to work within a team," says Vicky Lee, a PhD student in biochemistry. "It also gave me more confidence when I was giving seminars to undergraduates. I now know it is not necessary to know all the answers: you can throw it open for discussion."

Mary Millichip, a PhD student in psychology, also found that the course builds confidence. She believes that potential employers, either in universities or outside, recognise the value of transferable skills. "The people from outside I have spoken to are impressed, including other universities," she says. Ruth Holland, an MRes microbiology student, agrees. "It does look good on your CV," she says. "Saying that you have done a transferable skills course implies that you are a more rounded person."

Nationally, universities are being encouraged to develop better personal and transferable skills among their students, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. The 1992 Government White Paper, "Realising Our Potential", called on institutions to put more emphasis on giving scientists skills that they can use in the workplace.

Karen Hinett is researching transferable skills on behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee. So far, she has found that the number of departmental programmes far outweighs the number of centrally run courses. Instead of general skills, some universities prefer to emphasise subject-specific content, such as research techniques.

At their best, transferable skills courses should teach scientists how to use their specialist knowledge in an industrial environment, according to Ms Hinett. Done well, they could also prompt doctoral students to look again at a career in the business world.

This was certainly the effect of David Cummings' courses in Manchester. Around half of the university's MRes students are set to go into industry. PhD students also say it has broadened their career options. "I would not have touched industry with a barge pole," says Ms Millichip. "Now I think I would have something to offer. I know about time management and coping under pressure."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss