Research studentships: Talents you can take anywhere

Transferable skills are the universities' new growth area. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
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."