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."

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

KS1 Primary Teacher Supply Halifax

£130 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Are you an inspirational, ent...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Maths Teacher required for ...

Lower Key Stage 2 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education and recruitin...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Group: Being the UK market leader, Ran...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes