Powering industrial strength

A new type of PhD is producing graduates with more business awareness. Tristan Farrow extols the benefits of the Engineering Doctorate

Can you keep a secret? Well, so can engineers, it seems. Since 1992, one of their best-kept confidences has been a new kind of qualification aimed at producing career high-flyers. And the recipe? The Engineering Doctorate (EngD) - a four-year postgraduate programme based in industry. It aims to train the next generation of fast-streamers to be fluent in high-tech engineering and management, and its first crop of talent have been making waves in industry since 1997. The standard of the EngD is recognised as being equivalent to the traditional PhD, but there the similarity ends.

Can you keep a secret? Well, so can engineers, it seems. Since 1992, one of their best-kept confidences has been a new kind of qualification aimed at producing career high-flyers. And the recipe? The Engineering Doctorate (EngD) - a four-year postgraduate programme based in industry. It aims to train the next generation of fast-streamers to be fluent in high-tech engineering and management, and its first crop of talent have been making waves in industry since 1997. The standard of the EngD is recognised as being equivalent to the traditional PhD, but there the similarity ends.

For a start, recruits on the programme are referred to as research engineers rather than students, underlining the fact that three-quarters of their time is spent embedded in industry. They only interrupt their industrial experience to be seen on university campuses when attending the compulsory taught modules that form an integral part of the EngD curriculum. Where a traditional PhD thesis is expected to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge, the EngD's benchmark asks that the research project brings a significant innovation to the application of existing knowledge with measurable benefits, such as cost-saving, product development or efficient manufacturing, says Kevin Nealey, who heads Warwick University's Manufacturing Group EngD centre.

The choice of research projects on offer at the 15 university-based EngD centres, open to all graduates in numerate degrees, is broad. It reflects the diversity of industrial partners involved in the scheme, from multinationals to small start-ups. But the structure of EngDs follows a prescribed formula of three-quarters industrial experience, one quarter taught programme, plus ongoing professional development. Most EngD centres ensure that their graduates' industrial experience is accredited by the relevant professional body, so that by the end of their projects, they will have chartered status, or at least be very close to it. Final assessment takes the form of a PhD-style thesis and oral exam, although EngD theses tend to be laid out as portfolios, reflecting the fact that graduates may have worked on a string of three or four related projects.

The taught component of the EngD mixes management courses and the relevant technical modules in an exam-based, modular structure. The average 50-50 ratio of management to technical teaching varies across individual universities, with some centres such as Cranfield or Manchester running EngD-specific business courses. At Cranfield, research engineers take seven technical courses and 12 business modules, covering strategic and operations management to accounting, earning them half an MBA. Manchester University offers a full Diploma of Management, run from its business school.

The EngD programme is academia's pragmatic answer to the changing needs of UK industry, and marks a radical twist on the traditional PhD approach to training and research. In the brave, new world of our information-age economy - based on technological innovations, patents and adventurous capital - companies are keen to recruit adaptable, business-savvy technical experts capable of leading projects.

But some firms value EngD graduates more for their industrial experience than their business awareness. "The management aspect of the EngD is oversold," says Rolls-Royce's chief technologist for materials, Mike Hicks, who runs the company's sizeable university interface for materials research. "The benefit to us is that the graduates hit the ground running," he says, adding that EngD graduates are at a significant recruitment advantage over PhDs.

While no one would argue that the industrial experience gained on an EngD gives a big head-start, either on the job or on the market for jobs, others see the management courses as valuable assets of the programme. "The biotech sector is dominated by small start-up firms and it is crucial for them to have people with technical and business awareness," says Nigel Titchener-Hooker, the director of UCL's Biochemical Engineering EngD centre.

For the UK steel sector, with its gloomy post-industrial image, the EngD scheme represents a lifeline that maintains a specialist skills-base at a time when universities are closing or consolidating departments, explains Johanna Challinor, a HR adviser at Corus (ex-British Steel), who co-ordinates the highly-regarded Steel Technology EngD run by Swansea and Cardiff universities. The value of the scheme to the steel industry is reflected by the attention recruits are given by senior management at Corus, through mentoring schemes. "One important misconception is that the technical aspects of the steel industry are not very high-tech - that's a false impression", says Barry Goode, the technical manager of Corus' Llanwern plant, who graduated with an EngD from Swansea in 1998. He has a point: with economic drivers such as the automotive and aerospace industries, advanced computer modelling and materials science are staple tools for steel engineers.

With the threat of environmental cataclysms hanging over us, projects like UCL's new Environmental Technology EngD are gaining popularity. "We perceived a need to train technical people to deal with environmental problems and prevent further deterioration of the environment", says Caroline Fitzpatrick, the head of environmental engineering at UCL. Her researchers are involved in varied projects, from modelling the recolonisation of coastal sediment by marine organisms, to developing more sustainable water filtration systems. The management aspect of UCL's EngDs is catered for in collaboration with the London Business School, with an offering of its MBA modules.

UCL's Environmental Technology EngD is not to be confused with Surrey University's programme bearing the same title. "We consider the social and economic aspects of environmental technology, with a focus on developing the engineer's understanding of the social reaction to a perceived environmental threat from technology," says Surrey's centre director Chris France, one of the pioneers of the EngD scheme.

So, PhD or EngD? "Applied research was always my main interest, so the vocational aspect of the EngD was never an issue," says Dave Rollinson from Manchester University about his EngD at Econnect, a small firm that connects renewable energy sources to the national grid. If you can answer the question as confidently as that, and would prefer an industrial career to academia, then EngDs offer many openings.

For a full list of Engineering Doctorate centres and contacts, visit www.epsrc.ac.uk/PostgraduateTraining/EngineeringDoctorates

'I WAS ABLE TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING'

Georgina Harris, 25, is in the fourth year of her EngD with Per-Tec, a small, innovative engineering firm.

Her research project could have an important impact on the reduction of nitrous oxide and particulate pollutants from diesel engines. "The EngD provides in-depth understanding in a technical subject, but it also gives an extremely good grounding in managing a company," she says.

"There is a distinct difference between doing an EngD with a small or a large company. With the larger firms, you are given more time to get on with your project, compared with the smaller companies where you are given other jobs that are not necessarily contributing to your research." But having the managing director as your mentor, as is often the case in small enterprises, has its advantages in seeing how a business is run from top to toe.

Alice Castell, 30, is a senior policy adviser at the CBI and completed her EngD in environmental technology in 2003 at Surrey University. She lobbies the Government and Brussels on environmental legislation on behalf of the CBI's four million member-companies, where she is the expert on the subject. As part of her EngD, she spent four years at Hewlett-Packard, evaluating the impact of environmental legislation on the organisation.

"At the CBI, I'm now doing the job I did for my EngD, which means collecting information and building a case, so with the training from the EngD I was able to hit the ground running. It was also a very good opportunity to develop contact networks."

And what would she advise anyone thinking of enrolling on an EngD? "You can't do an EngD without time and project-management skills," she says. "You'll be doing two jobs at the same time because you're effectively working for a company, and you're also doing a research project. So there are different requirements. One will be to produce a volume of work for your EngD and the other to do the work asked for by the company. So you have to learn to manage people's expectations and be able to sell your work to two groups, to the industrial and the academic supervisors.

"There is a huge range of projects on the EngD programme. So you should ensure that the fit is right."

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