Postgraduate degrees in web science are the first of their kind in the country

It sounds too good to be true; a combined Masters and PhD degree with no fees to pay and a £13,000-a-year stipend to study the World Wide Web. Yet half the free places at the University of Southampton went unfilled last October because the four-year course failed to attract enough of the right kind of applicant.

“People think you need to be a computer person to study the web, but that is not the case,” says Dr Leslie Carr, the deputy director of the university’s new Web Science Doctoral Training Centre. “We need economists, sociologists, political scientists and linguists to take up our PhDs so we can fully understand the impact the web is having on our lives.”

The postgraduate degrees in web science are the first of their kind in the country and are funded by the Research Councils UK Digital Economy programme, which focuses on the impact of new technology on individuals and society. It is funding 10 places a year for five years with some matched funding from the university.

Web science is a new discipline preparing people for jobs of the future, says Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton. Within the next few years, companies, organisations, the public services and government departments are all going to be looking for people who can understand the way people use the internet, the impact it has and the way it is likely to develop in the future, she says.

“Anyone who does business online needs a web scientist, but they are unlikely to call it that at the moment. Our graduates will be able to analyse issues such as charging for web use, consumer behaviour or using new technology to increase security, such as Twitter alerts,” she says. “The web is an amazing technology that affects all our lives and has a huge impact on society, yet there hasn’t been anywhere to go and study it,” says Hall. “You can learn about the technology in computer science and human behaviour in social science, but this is an opportunity to study the web in all its guises, in a cross-disciplinary way.”

Though you don’t yet see advertisements for web scientists, companies and organisations are keen to be involved in the course and offer internships, she says. The work of the web scientist is likely to evolve as people step back and take time to appraise the rapid growth of information technology. Students will prepare for new advances, such as the semantic web – the next generation web, which is expected to be one which machines can interpret and use. “In the future, there is going to be a great demand for people with these cross-disciplinary skills and some understanding of the technology as well as the business aspects. When the web first emerged, the great demand was for web designers. Jobs of the future will be for web scientists,” predicts Hall.

People from different backgrounds can cast fresh light on the success of the web and its dangers. “The Serious Organised Crime Agency is interested in the dark aspect of the web. Criminals and the underworld use the internet as much as anyone else – there are the dark equivalents of places like eBay,” says Carr. “This is just one area where the web scientist can assist.”

Student Conor McCabe, 24, enrolled after a degree in computing, followed by a year working for a board of education in Northern Ireland. “I heard a talk by Wendy Hall, and web science sounded new and exciting,” he says. “It has given me the chance to learn about wider subjects and work as a team. Web scientists will be great collaborators and I’m sure we will be in great demand.”

The degree includes a taught-year equivalent to an MSc in web science, providing a technical background to web construction and a multi-disciplinary perspective on its impact on society. The next three years are spent on a research project into a combined engineering and qualitative investigation.

The five unfilled positions have been rolled over to this year, providing 15 free places in October for home and EU students resident in the UK for three years. International students pay the full fees.

“At that very moment, I heard about the web science doctoral training,” says Yip, 24, who came to the UK from Hong Kong at the age of 10.

“Web science is not an easy subject, because it involves both the technical side and human nature, which is unpredictable. My interest is in studying the human side of cyber security, and this requires a multidisciplinary approach. I’m working alongside sociologists and lawyers on the course, which has opened up new perspectives on the way I think of the web.

“I have had the chance to liaise with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which has offered a number of project ideas for my thesis. The doctoral training centre has strong ties with industry to tailor the course to the skills and knowledge it needs.

“It’s a new subject, but I have no worries about my future career prospects.”