The PhD gets a makeover

Traditionally, a doctorate led to Academe, but for graduates doing a NewRoutePhD, the sky's the limit, writes Caitlin Davies
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The Independent Online

PhD students may know all about research, but do they have the skills to become entrepreneurs? They will if they enroll on the UK's NewRoutePhD programme, whose first crop of students are due to graduate next year. The scheme, which borrows from the American-style doctorate, began in 2001 with a consortium of 10 universities; now there are 34.

PhD students may know all about research, but do they have the skills to become entrepreneurs? They will if they enroll on the UK's NewRoutePhD programme, whose first crop of students are due to graduate next year. The scheme, which borrows from the American-style doctorate, began in 2001 with a consortium of 10 universities; now there are 34.

Rather than replacing the traditional PhD, the idea was to offer an exciting alternative. After four years, graduates should be ready for high-flying business and management careers - not just jobs in Academe. The NewRoutePhD combines taught courses (usually 40 per cent of the programme) with the more traditional advanced research (60 per cent of the programme). Taught courses include specialist IT, business methods and enterprise skills, and an optional Certificate in Learning and Teaching that serves as a qualification in its own right. The certificate is particularly attractive to international students who want to embark on university teaching careers in their home countries. And it was overseas students, after all, that the NewRoutePhD was designed to attract.

The origins of the programme lie, in part, in an attempt to hold on to the UK's market share of doctoral students, explains Professor Stephen Hoddell at the University of West England. Hoddell, a member of the NewRoutePhD steering committee, explains that there have been other influences, too. This includes the doctoral definition laid out by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), with its new emphasis on employment-related skills. "Whether we like it or not, because of the QAA definition, we're all going to have to put taught elements into doctorates," says Hoddell.

The taught elements of the programme draw on four areas: advanced subject study, tools of research, generic professional skills, and learning to teach in further education. Each university uses these subjects in different ways. On the whole, the taught models draw on existing Masters programmes, so by the end of the four years, you'll have both a masters and a doctorate.

The NewRoutePhD is offered in 120 subject areas, and at prestigious universities such as Imperial College and King's College London. Subjects range from aircraft design to Islamic studies, pharmaceutical science to textiles.

The University of West England is still recruiting for its NewRoutePhD courses, due to start next year. Hoddell reports "quite a lot of enquiries", and not just from foreign students. But at the moment, he says, not enough potential students know about the programme as it has been marketed internationally by the steering committee, and less so by individual UK universities.

The University of Sheffield has been involved in the scheme since the start, and its NewRoutePhD is known as the PhD with Integrated Studies. Sheffield now offers 22 courses in architecture, engineering, medicine, physical and social sciences. Student numbers are still relatively low, with 11 last year, and 23 this year. But Peter Fearnley, head of the university's graduate research office, says that a good foundation is needed before recruitment takes off.

Kriangsak Pirarai, 32, from Thailand, is two years into his PhD with Integrated Studies at Sheffield's department of civil engineering. A geology graduate, he previously worked for a government department back home, before seeing an advertisement for the programme. "It's a benefit for overseas students like me because there's more of a training programme before doing research," he says. "I did my first degree in Thailand, but didn't finish my MSc, so doing the MSc and PhD together is ideal for me."

One advantage of the new programme is that it brings students together, for example at an annual research conference, and allows for what Fearnley calls cross-fertilisation. "It's easy for research students to feel isolated," he says. "This way, they get support as a group." This year, for the first time, there are home students, too, with five of the 23 students coming from the UK.

Overall, the NewRoutePhD offers students a more integrated (or "holistic", as Sheffield advertises) approach to their doctorate - they don't just focus on research but also skills training and so-called "cohort activities" such as career management and speaking skills. The university provides potential students with a list of FAQs, including: "Is the NewRoutePhD an easy option?" The answer is: "Absolutely not!"

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