Professor Rick Rylance: 'Many blue-chip companies demand precisely those skills nurtured by science PhDs’

Research Council's UK Champion for research careers

Thursday 10 March 2011 12:26 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


From exploring the Big Bang to probing far-flung galaxies, science definitely has the wow factor – but in these challenging economic times, does that matter?

In a report last year, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) noted a growing need for science, technology, engineering and maths graduates in business and industry. Scientific and technological innovations are more important than ever to the UK economy and highly skilled people are essential if the UK is to sustain its position globally and realise the potential of its technology and business sectors.

Research Councils UK strives to encourage undergraduates to develop their skills at postgraduate level. In a recent survey, the Science nd Technology Facilities Council (STFC) found that although most students choose to do a PhD because of their interest in a subject, the careers open to them afterwards can contribute to the UK’s knowledge economy in many ways –some of them quite unexpected.

The survey found that astronomy and particle physics research is cited by 90 per cent of current physics undergraduates as the inspiration for them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STFC is responsible for some of the most exciting science in the world. As well as operating and providing UK access to leading experimental facilities at home and overseas, including the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, STFC funds more than 200 new PhD students every year, some of whom work in collaboration with an industrial partner.

The survey gives an insight into the career paths of students up to nine years after they complete their PhD. Six out of 10 respondents were earning at least as much as the average professional worker in the UK, despite being in the early stages of their careers – and this proportion rose to seven out of 10 for those working in the private sector. They also enjoyed almost full employment: only 1 per cent of the respondents were out of work, while 2 per cent were taking a voluntary career break.

The survey also reveals that job opportunities for those following a PhD are not limited to research. Graduates also follow careers in business and financial services, with many international, blue chip companies employing physics graduates. These companies lead high-value, knowledge intensive sectors that demand just the type of advanced computing, modelling, analytical and transferable skills that are developed through STFC PhDs. Critical thinking, project planning, team work and leadership are just some of the skills that respondents attribute to their PhD.

Martin Millmore completed a PhD in particle physics at Imperial College London. Now a director at Oracle Corporation, he said: “My job requires a great degree of innovation as ours is a very competitive and fast-moving market. The ability to think laterally and to be creative is essential in being able to produce new products that are better than the competition. My PhD taught me a great deal about finding novel solutions to problems and instilled a mentality of always looking for opportunities to innovate.”

Along with the other Research Councils, STFC is committed to the development of early-career researchers. Its Studentship Enhancement Programme and an elite research fellowship scheme for individuals with future leadership potential are two ways in which STFC is helping to ensure a supply of excellent UK researchers to probe remote galaxies and secure a prosperous future.

More information about the CDTs and IDCs can be found at; details of funding opportunities at all the UK Research Councils can be found at

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