Making courses fit for different purposes


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PhDs come in an increasing variety of shapes and structures to address different societal purposes

PhDs are evolving. There’s an increasing acknowledgement that most PhD graduates will not move into an academic career, or even a non-academic research position. Funders and institutions are therefore providing students with more training and opportunities to help them develop skills that will be useful in any future career.

However, there’s a catch. A PhD is already time-pressured, so adding in more training requirements as new skills demands arise – programming, entrepreneurship, public engagement, emotional intelligence – cannot be the answer to everything. What we need is a diversification of the PhD experience.

That was the message of a recent Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference on the next steps for postgraduate research in the UK. Among the projects presented there, one that particularly caught my attention was the Faraday Institution’s PhD training in battery technology. Students are provided with a range of support and opportunities designed to encourage them into careers in the battery sector, including career coaching, a mini-MBA project to build entrepreneurial skills, visits to different research sites and a three-month industrial placement. The approach has been effective: the first PhD cohort all remained in the battery sector after graduating, working across industry (including launching start-ups), academia and policymaking.

Another intriguing pilot is the Co(l)laboratory programme in Nottinghamshire. This funds PhD projects and research apprenticeships that are codesigned with local people, ensuring that the research is relevant to the local community and helping to train the civic leaders of the future. None of the PhD projects announced so far deal with chemistry-related issues, but I can imagine many environmental and medicinal chemistry projects would suit such an approach very well.

Co(l)laboratory also explicitly advertises itself to people with non-traditional academic backgrounds. This is another important part of diversifying PhDs: making them attractive to a wider range of people. There’s still a perception that successful PhD candidates need to have a stellar academic track record (even though, as Dean Thomas argues, exams aren’t necessarily that great at measuring depth of understanding). Even students with high grades may find themselves excluded by the standard PhD structure: full-time study, low stipends and inflexible funding durations are unappealing or impossible for many, including carers, people with chronic health conditions and those from low-income backgrounds.

While innovative course structures could help to broaden participation in various ways, inclusivity should be a core principle of all PhDs. To achieve that, we need to keep on experimenting with how PhDs can best serve society through both the research and the training that they produce.