'I want to make contacts and see what's out there'

David Hewett is doing it because he wants to pursue his interest in maths. Jill Hilditch is doing it because she has to if she wants to continue working in archaeology. Joseph Maslen is doing it because he loves the process of writing and research. There are as many reasons for studying for a PhD as there are postgraduate students, which would be fine if only everyone agreed what a PhD actually was.

It is a question that has come to the fore because of recent changes in postgraduate education, both nationally and internationally. It was also one of the key talking points at a meeting last week of the Roberts Policy Forum, which met to review progress since Sir Gareth Roberts's recommendations in 2002 on skills and careers development for researchers.

These recommendations, which injected more than £13m into the postgraduate sector for skills development in 2004 to 2005 (and around £20m a year after that), have been one reason why traditional notions of a PhD no longer hold good.

"The money that came as a result of the Roberts report has been having a significant impact on the research-student experience, and the formal definition and understanding of what a PhD is lags behind," says Chris Park, director of the graduate school at the University of Lancaster, who has published a discussion paper this month entitled Redefining the Doctorate. "We have students who are being trained and having general skills development. But that isn't considered in the assessment of the PhD and isn't considered in the institutional regulations for what PhDs are, so we have arrived at a mismatch."

At the heart of this debate are tensions between how far a doctorate should be about producing a high- quality piece of original work in the form of a thesis, and how far it should be about developing researchers and preparing them for employment.

The emphasis in most European countries has traditionally been on the thesis. But in the US, a doctoral programme usually includes advanced-level taught courses as well as research. Now many UK institutions have begun to develop similar, formalised doctoral programmes, offering help for students at the beginning of their course and dealing with issues such as isolation and time management.

Graduate schools, which have long existed in the US, are also starting to appear in the UK, offering services specifically for graduate students, from discipline-specific administration to institution-wide work and social space, and supervisors have also had to become more transparent and accountable to comply with new guidelines set down by the Quality Assurance Agency.

At the University of Manchester, PhD students complete a two-day course taking them through the "life cycle" of a PhD before beginning their doctorate, to help them appreciate exactly what is involved. Stuart Jones, director of postgraduate education in the school of arts, histories and culture at the university, says: "It always was the case that doing a PhD involved the acquisition of transferable skills. What I think we need to do is make students more conscious of the skills they are acquiring."

All this isn't simply out of concern for students' well-being. With global competition for good research students increasing, UK institutions are anxious to offer potential postgraduates an attractive range of support. Already, recruiting UK graduates on to doctoral programmes is becoming harder, thanks to mounting student debts, a buoyant jobs market and poor availability of funding for postgraduate research.

There is also pressure to help the increasing numbers of postgraduates who choose employment outside academia once they finish their doctorate. When the PhD was first introduced in the UK in 1917, it was seen as preparation for a university career. Now, only about a third of doctoral students continue on in academia, but employers have long complained that many postgraduates lack commercial awareness and take time to adapt to the working world.

Not all institutions are responding to these changes at the same pace. Park says the large research institutions tend to be further ahead, partly because they are the ones that have received the bulk of the Roberts cash, and partly because every institution differs in what it can offer and what its students want.

One problem with the traditional PhD model, he says, is that it assumes all research students are the same, when they vary enormously depending on whether they are full-time, part-time, cross-disciplinary or distance learners. New developments, such as the introduction of professional doctorates, new-route PhDs (which contain significant taught elements), and practice-based doctorates, are beginning to change this.

Nevertheless, his paper argues that however diverse the doctorate has become according to discipline, institution and country, "there should be something identifiable and widely accepted as 'doctorateness' in all the forms".

This is easier said than done. Take the tensions over timing. In the interests of efficiency, UK research councils have become stricter about submission rates (the percentage of doctoral students who submit within a specified time, usually four years). But this timescale is much shorter than for doctoral students in most other parts of Europe, something that is now being addressed by the Bologna process to harmonise higher education across Europe. The postgraduate element of this process, which could have far-reaching implications for the way postgraduate qualifications are delivered across Europe, is due to be discussed by European ministers in May. Meanwhile, many students complain that they are suffering financial hardship because research-council funding usually only supports them for three years, when their research often takes a year longer. Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, says that while the NPC welcomes many of the new developments in postgraduate education, and the opportunities offered by developments in Europe, any discussion of the PhD must address the issue of timescales.

A series of seminars, organised by the UK Grad Programme, is planned over the next year to debate exactly this kind of question. UK Grad has also begun research into postgraduates' career development - something that has not been researched before - and the Higher Education Academy has conducted a survey into the postgraduate-research experience.

What will happen to the definition of doctorateness after these discussions, no one yet knows. Janet Metcalfe, director of UK Grad, says: "We aren't saying necessarily that the doctoral degree ought to change, but that that we need discussion to see if there are things we need to deal with or not."

David Hewett (right) did a PhD because he wanted to take his interest in maths further and couldn't see what job would allow him to do that. "Most careers I saw as a step backwards intellectually," he says.

But he chose a department that was linked to the working world because he feared getting stuck in an ivory tower. "I don't want to come out having just sat in a room for three years," he says. "I want to have made contacts and see what's out there and have a bit more idea of what I want to do."

People from business and industry regularly approach the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics - where Hewett is researching sound propagation in the urban environment - to ask for help with maths problems they encounter, and he now feels he has a good idea of the kind of options that could be open to him later.

But he says he has been very much left to find his own way, particularly as other people in his department are working on different projects and are at different stages of their research. This makes any kind of generic training difficult. "It is not just a matter of catering for the needs of each student, it's about adapting your approach to the needs of each project," he says.

At times he has found it hard to keep motivated - not helped by his friends starting jobs with plenty of structure for good salaries. "Something everyone doing a PhD has to come to terms with is that it takes time to settle in, " he says.

When Jill Hilditch (right) finished her Masters in 2001, she had no intention of doing a PhD. "It seemed like a waste of time and I had a slim chance of getting funding," she says. But as her temporary research contract in archaeology ran out, she realised that most bodies doing archaeological research abroad were university departments and that she was likely to need a PhD if she wanted to continue working in that area. She got research council funding and now wants to be a lecturer.

Hilditch, who is studying at Exeter, says that for academic posts the new emphasis on professional skills training seems to be working - hence a PhD now becoming a prerequisite. She has found skills support, as well as a growing number of PhD-dedicated websites. "There is a emphasis on developing yourself as a researcher and an employable resource," she says.

For her, the main problem is being funded for only three years when the completion deadline from research councils is four. This shifts the emphasis of a PhD towards project management rather than the broader aspects of academic life, such as teaching, which can be a disadvantage when applying for academic jobs, particularly in the US. "The time frame is so tight that sometimes the wider experience falls by the wayside and it is this that can prepare a young researcher for an academic career," she says.