George Orwell wrote in his essay, "What is Science?", that scientists could benefit from a little education. He meant that, although a degree in chemistry or physics drills the mind to think exactly and sceptically within the abstract world of science, scientists fail to apply this skill to judgements in everyday life.
Short of introducing cultural studies for scientists into the syllabus, what better way of familiarising science students with "applied thinking" than by bringing science out from behind the academic fence and into a real-life context. Broadly, this is the aim of an increasingly popular form of PhD study, in subjects across all sciences and engineering, that sees the student go on regular placements in industry.
These so-called collaborative research (Case) PhDs started in the 1960s, the era of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", and have existed under various names since. Over the last 10 years they have taken off in a very substantial way. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and its counterparts in the biological, environmental and social sciences have made available significant funding to promote the scheme and, in turn, companies ranging from industrial giants such as Pfizer or Toshiba down to smaller start-up hi-tech firms team up with university departments by contributing towards the funding of PhD courses.
Case-funded students receive a £3,000-£5,000 annual top-up from the industrial partner, in addition to the standard £10,000-£12,000 from their research council. That compares well with starting graduate salaries, as it is all tax free. In return, students are expected to join a research team in the company for a predetermined amount of time every year. Arrangements vary widely, but on average three months a year are spent on placement. The majority of the student's time is still spent within the academic department, which allows them to be integrated with other students and to provide time for direct supervision, says Professor Chris Baker at the electrical engineering department of University College London (UCL), one of the most successful institutions at attracting industrial partners.
There are regular review meetings and e-mail exchanges with the industrial sponsor. Students should treat the sponsorship as an opportunity to gain valuable experience in industry without committing themselves. "I have never had a student who came back saying they would never want to work for their sponsor again. And, vice versa, no company has ever complained about a student," says Baker.
A Case studentship is not about product development for a company, stresses Dr Neal Skipper of UCL. Industrial sponsors benefit from drawing on the diverse skills base available in an academic department, and by pooling complementary resources. The partnership represents a symbiosis, adds Professor Barry Hirst of Newcastle University's School of Biomedical Sciences, which takes on about five industry-sponsored PhD students each year. Its partners include giants such as Glaxo SmithKline and AstraZeneca, as well as smaller biotech firms, so the student may expect a different kind of experience at the two ends of the spectrum. But bigger does not necessarily mean better. Smaller firms expand and offer an easier way to employment for people trained in-house.
"What you gain in structure in your PhD, you can lose in freedom," warns Chris Howard, a UCL finalist on a studentship from Merck. However, a well-structured PhD project guided by an academic and an industrial supervisor can be a real blessing. An industrial sponsor introduces the demands of industry with its deadlines, clear objectives, regular reports and meetings; and accumulating good records highlights holes in your work and makes writing up easier, says Ian Garrard, a final-year student at Brunel University's institute for bioengineering, who is on placement at the agro-chemicals firm Syngenta.
According to a report to be released later this month by the UK Grad programme, which provides personal and career skills development for postgraduate students, about 30 per cent of physical sciences and engineering PhDs go into industry, 40 per cent stay on at universities at least in the short term, and the remainder go overseas.
Employment prospects can be improved by experience gained on industrial placements, so Case PhDs could give a head start to anyone considering a career outside academia.
Further information is available at www.epsrc.ac.uk
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