Postgraduates are not always satisfied that they are learning the right things in their PhDs. Harriet Swain looks at what is being done to bring the qualification up to date

The idea of giving a job to someone who has spent the past three years working, mainly alone, on a topic unique to them is a hard one to sell to employers. PhDs therefore have something of an image problem. And they have other problems, too, many of which are highlighted in a recent report commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Kate Purcell, professor of employment studies at the University of the West of England, and Peter Elias, professor at Warwick Institute for Employment Research, were originally asked to find out how far non-academic employers appreciated the skills that graduates with social-science PhDs had to offer. In the course of their study, they found that there were also question marks over how successfully these postgraduates had been equipped for careers within Academe.

Nine out of 10 of the former PhD students that they questioned in both academic and non-academic jobs said that their employers required skills in project management and leadership, which were not delivered through the PhD. Many of those who had gone into Academe said that they also wished that they had had more help with handling the day-to-day demands of life as an academic, such as applying for external funding and finding appropriate ways of publishing their work. Job satisfaction was actually higher among those in non-academic jobs than for their academic counterparts, and they had also found it easier to find employment.

Professor Purcell says that concerns over what a PhD offers for future careers urgently need to be addressed as the world becomes increasingly competitive and globalised. "I think the PhD is the last great bastion of academic laissez-faire," she says.

It is a bastion that has nevertheless been under attack in the past five years. The 2002 Roberts report into science careers stated that skills training was a vital element of a research degree programme, and research councils now provide more than £900 per student to supply this training. In 2004, the Quality Assurance Agency released a new code of practice for research degrees, which forces institutions to provide and monitor postgraduate skills development or risk losing funding. Professors Purcell and Elias admit that their report, which looks at cohorts who graduated in 1995 and 1999 before embarking on PhDs, is behind the times, and that today's PhD holders are likely to be much more positive about the skills that they have developed. Certainly, research council-funded students are likely to have every opportunity to develop their skills, as it is a condition of their grant, says Simon Felton, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, although he suggests that self-funding students may have more problems.

Philip Cunliffe, a second- year PhD student in international relations at King's College London, says that far from feeling deprived of practical skills, he is constantly encouraged to undertake research training, and take part in conferences, presentations and networking. "On balance, things are good," he says. If anything, he is concerned that many postgrads are under such pressure to take on teaching commitments and to publish early that it may undermine the traditional strengths of the PhD.

Employers' attitudes have also begun to change. Purcell says that views of a PhD graduate being overspecialised and likely to be "a bit of a boffin" persist in some companies, but others are actively recruiting people with PhDs, and there is increasing crossover between experts in universities and outside organisations. Sarah Shillingford, graduate-recruitment partner at Deloitte, says that the one area that PhD graduates need to work on is their commercial awareness. But it is possible, she says, for them to have developed this through work experience or reading newspaper business pages, and many can offer project management and leadership skills as a result of work they have done during their course. She therefore looks closely at the individual to find out exactly what they have to offer.

Professor Elias says that he would like to see PhD graduates receiving a formal diploma or certificate recognising skills that they have developed, such as in computing or quantitative work, to make life easier for employers, and talks are now taking place between the ESRC and other social- science organisations about this possibility.

The ESRC has already implemented a number of changes related to issues raised in Professors Purcell and Elias's report. Last year it launched the ESRC Researcher Development Initiative, which provides training to enhance general skills across the social sciences, in areas such as quantitative research - identified as a particular problem. It is also considering the possibility, in some disciplines, of a longer period of skills training followed by a shorter period of research.

These issues - and responses - are not confined to the social sciences. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, introduced a framework of research training requirements in 2004 aimed at ensuring that doctoral students learnt skills related to employment. Professor Elias also says that there is an increasing tendency for interdisciplinary research work - a trend that he expects to continue - which means that issues affecting a PhD student in one discipline cross over into others.

Many academics now accept this emphasis on new skills. Professor Purcell says that she spoke to some PhD graduates who claimed that their supervisors had encouraged them not to do formal research-methods training beyond their immediate needs. But she adds that this is unlikely to be the case any more. "Academics have been forced to rethink what PhD 'training' means, and most of us have come round to recognising that it is very important to have a wider range of skills."

However, reservations remain. Sara Delamont, a sociologist at Cardiff University and co-author of Supervising the Doctorate, says that while she agrees that training in methods is important in the social sciences, there are dangers in emphasising it too much. She argues that stress on empirical research in the social sciences for political reasons has deterred students who are "philosophically minded theorists", and says that some argue that valuable scholarship has been lost as a result.

As for fears raised in the report that students are not achieving the quantitative research skills they need, she suggests that this is likely to be because there are more interesting ways of doing research: "A lot of people are competent in quantitative methods. They just don't want to spend their lives using them."

This highlights one of the difficulties surrounding skills training - it relies on students to take up what is on offer and use it effectively. PhDs are, by definition, about individual study and original work, which makes it difficult to generalise about problems or to find general solutions. Francis Dodsworth, who completed a PhD at Manchester University in 2002, and is now a research fellow at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, says that there are one or two skills that he wished he had learnt but that they are very specific. Mainly, he wishes that he had decided earlier on what he wanted to do once he had got his PhD.

Delamont says that the ESRC has recognised this problem and is considering how to move from a "one size fits all" model of skills training for PhD students across the social sciences, to one more tailored to individual disciplines.

Dr Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK GRAD Programme, says that the problem for most graduates with PhDs is that they don't realise what skills they have: "There's a long way to go before there is a recognition by both PhD students and employers of what they have to offer."

'People have certain expectations of you'

When Dr Michael Barr, research fellow in bioethics at the London School of Economics (right), tells people he has a PhD in philosophy he finds they have certain expectations. "They assume I know a lot about Ancient Greek philosophers," he says. While he knows a bit about them, most of his knowledge is narrowly focused on the subject of his doctorate.

One of the reasons he chose to study in the UK rather than his native United States was to avoid the broader and longer postgraduate PhD programmes offered by American universities and get his study over more quickly. He now feels that this has limited his knowledge. "At most British universities you just have to write a book," he says. "I wish I had done a programme that forced me to do coursework. Then I would have had a greater background in the academic discipline I was trained in."

It is this weakness in his PhD training that he regrets more than any lack of generic practical skills. He wasn't offered any of the few jobs outside Academe that he applied for, but is not convinced that he ever really wanted them.

"It reaches a point in the course of the PhD when you need to decide whether or not you want an academic career," he says. "If you do, you do a lot of publishing and grant applications and that puts you in a pigeonhole. Journal publication is respected in Academe but in other jobs don't carry as much weight so you are spending all this time writing and publishing but not getting experience with managing budgets and practical stuff."

He says he can see the advantage of learning general work skills early on in a PhD course but for him, a PhD is more about overcoming a career hurdle. "You need to prove you can speak academic language and hang with the academics," he says. HS