Graduate Plus: A dose of the real world, doctor

A vocational training scheme is taking PhDs from the academe to the workplace, writes Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
This year, 1,500 PhD students will attend a five-day vocational skills development course organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). They will be the most recent of 22,500 postgraduate research students who have benefited from the Graduate Schools Programme since it began in 1968.

PhDs are often portrayed as boffins lacking business awareness and the skills to work in the "real world" of industry or commerce. With this damaging stereotype it is not surprising that an Institute of Employment study, The Labour Market for Postgraduates, should report: "Outside of the HE sector and research-based organisations, there is little specific demand for postgraduates, especially PhDs."

Although some universities, such as University College London, provide all incoming postgraduate research students with formal training in both research skills and in transferable vocational skills, many do not.

Dr Janet Metcalfe, the Graduate Schools Co-ordinator, says universities and postgraduates themselves are not doing much to dispel the poor image of PhDs. "Universities are still more concerned with producing good researchers than producing wealth-creators. And postgraduates are generally ignorant of how to meet employers' needs ... "

She points out that PhD students throughout their studies "have been developing a set of personal skills which is invaluable to employers". The problem, she says, is a lack of awareness. When they attend interviews "they don't know how to sell these skills to employers and, more distressingly, many don't know they have any skills to offer".

In a five-day graduate school, there is not enough time to "teach" the students anything. What the schools do, says Dr Metcalfe, is give "the students an opportunity to examine their own bundle of skills and competencies, to practise using them in team building and communicating, and to learn how to present them positively to employers. And it works. In my experience every postgraduate who attends a graduate school is employable."

Moreover, although the courses are short, they appear to produce long- term benefits. A sample of those taking part in the 1990 courses were surveyed in 1995. All claimed improved self-confidence, four out of five viewed their abilities more positively, and two-thirds said the course had a positive impact on their career intentions and had improved their approach to job searching. Almost all would recommend other PhDs to attend.

Although in their 29th year, and having been attended by 22,500 people, the schools remain surprisingly little known. "This upsets us more than anything," Dr Metcalfe says, "because we've got a programme which has proved itself successful and we're actually doing what everyone says needs to be done."

This year there will have been 17 schools, each attended by 90 students, run in 10 locations throughout Britain. Students attend free if they are funded by the EPSRC or the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences or Particle Physics and Astronomy Research councils. There are also a certain number of free places for students funded by the Natural Environment and the Economic and Social Research councils, and by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

Half the courses are run for the EPSRC by the Careers Research Advisory Centre and half by GPA, a training company. Everyone involved in the courses works on what Dr Metcalfe calls a "semi-charitable basis". All the tutors are young managers from a variety of backgrounds who have taken time out from their normal work to assist in the programme. One recent course included tutors from Mars, Unilever, Unison and the Prime Minister's Office.

Each course is unique, but the basic structure is consistent and follows set guidelines. For example, there are daily group reviews, and there has to be a balance between the various skill elements that the course is covering. However, the course manager and the director have freedom in how they deliver what is required. They design the course together. The directors use case studies with which they are familiar, and the tutors run individual exercises which are in their own areas of expertise.

Exercises form the heart of each course, and team working and communication skills are vital. Each course is divided into 10 teams of nine, each with a tutor. Each team also includes a young scientist or engineer with a few years' work experience. The role of this "executive" is to make the team aware of the commercial implications of any decisions it may take.

The fact that the course is delivered by practising managers rather than "trainers" gives it greater credibility among students. The exercises are real problems. After each one the tutor, having listened to a presentation by the students on their proposals, can say "this is what we decided when facing the same problem you've just had - only we took three months to get an answer and you've only had three hours". Dr Metcalfe says this process "helps students to see that they're capable of doing the same job as the person who has just delivered the case study".

Although 1,500 have undertaken the courses this year, they are only a small proportion of all PhDs. Dr Metcalfe says they plan to expand by forging links with the academic institutions. "We can use the expertise we've got to help them start developing similar programmes, or even just one-off exercises, that allow students to get an experience of team working and to build on their communication skills."

Employers and universities who might like to become involved are invited to contact Dr Janet Metcalfe on 0181 341 4828.