Rethinking the training of science and engineering PhDs

Francis Sedgemore, Friday 5 December 2008 at 13:13 UTC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is to spend spend £250m on establishing a network of centres to train more than 2,000 PhD students. The initiative should be seen as part of an international effort to update the doctoral training process.

PhD study has traditionally been a somewhat chaotic affair, with individual universities operating often disparate training regimes, serious questions about standards, candidates struggling to secure sufficient funding, low completion rates and more. And that’s just in science and engineering, which attracts far more support than do the arts and humanities.

What exactly is a PhD? The degree of Philosophiæ Doctor is awarded in recognition of the recipient’s original contribution to the sum of human knowledge. This takes the form of research carried out over a number of years, which is written up as a monograph examined by experts in the field, a series of peer-reviewed papers published in learned journals, or both. The subject does not have to be of earth-shattering importance, but the product of the candidate’s endeavours must be substantial, and show that he or she has acquired the skills required of an independent researcher. It can also be a test of endurance and character.

So what is the rationale for the EPSRC initiative? There is said to be a shortage of scientists and engineers qualified to develop practical solutions to environmental problems, design innovative industrial processes and address numerous other real-world concerns. We are talking specifically about applied rather than pure science.

Under the new system, instead of universities taking on PhD candidates and having them toil in relative isolation, students will now work on a more collaborative basis in training centres attached to universities but operating outside their normal management structures. And alongside their research activities, students will undertake formal coursework designed to equip them with technical and business skills relevant to industry.

Other European countries such as Denmark have been doing similar things for a number of years now, and in the UK the new approach to doctoral training was piloted by the EPSRC through its Engineering Doctorate Centres and similar initiatives in complexity science and systems biology. However, the EPSRC is but one of several research councils, and it will be interesting to see whether the others follow suit.

There are some concerns about the new training regime. Students are at present expected to spend three years engaged in intensive, full-time research, and many require longer to complete the work and write-up their theses. If a substantial portion of the time is allocated to formal tuition, how will that impact on the research? Some critics argue that the research component of a PhD will end up as little more than that of a current master’s degree.

As long as the amount of coursework is restricted to what is necessary and useful, and the box-ticking bureaucrats are kept on a tight leash, I do not see this as a problem. It’s time to move beyond the almost mystical concept of the PhD as an ordination to the research priesthood.