It’s an excellent thing that more and more students are graduating from UK higher education institutions. But how will this affect those exceptionally talented students who wish to continue their studies? Will it be harder for them to secure a good career having delayed entry into the job market? Will they be overqualified and underprepared?

It’s an issue that the Research Councils UK (RCUK) considers carefully. Our analysis shows that postdoctoral students suffer no loss of opportunity. On the contrary, they enjoy a number of advantages.

The demand for highly trained researchers is higher than ever and the UK’s increasingly knowledge-based society needs its most talented people trained to the highest level to maximise their abilities.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) recently announced a new doctoral training partnerships scheme. By comparison with their earlier quota-based scheme, which primarily targeted training grants at departmental or faculty level, the new scheme will fund large, multi-institutional partnerships. This enables greater co-ordination in specialist training provision, while ensuring higher education institutions benefit from closer working with BBSRC and its training awards committee. At the same time, the council has increased funding for research training to £5,000 a year per student as well as introducing a three-month professional internship as a requirement for all.

Professional internships will be available for students beginning their studies in autumn 2012 as part of a programme designed by their host doctoral training partnership. Students will broaden their experience in areas not immediately related to their PhD projects, including working in industry, teaching, policy or communications.

A large proportion of RCUK-funded PhD students pursue careers outside academia – BBSRC’s professional internships are intended to help students identify careers where their skills will be beneficial.

Meanwhile, for those continuing in research, the placements offer excellent opportunities to develop the wider impact of their studies. BBSRC also offers policy placements with hosts including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts.

Postgraduates are also eligible for similar schemes with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

For those looking to develop skills in commercialising research, the highly successful Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) run by BBSRC and the University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) provides postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers with complementary skills in marketing, finance and the management of intellectual property.

This competition has a sister scheme funded by NERC called Environment YES. In 2011 BBSRC, UNIEI, NERC and Syngenta will run the first YES workshop for plant, microbial and environmental science, targeting those whose research is relevant to food security.

The skills acquired during a PhD are valuable to business and industry, and there are schemes for RCUK-funded postgraduates to develop complementary skills alongside their own projects. The councils work hard to ensure that the PhD students we fund have a competitive advantage when seeking a career inside or outside higher education. This is good news for researchers and great news for the UK’s knowledge- based economy.

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