At £250 million, the EPSRC's largest ever call will champion a new breed of doctoral training centre

At ?250 million, the EPSRC’s largest ever call will champion a new breed of doctoral training centre

This time next year, bands of eager students around the UK will be settling in to postgraduate life at about 40 new centres for doctoral training. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which will provide funding, is currently reviewing university proposals for new centres and will decide this month which ones have been successful. ’It’s the largest call that EPSRC has ever issued,’ says Neil Viner, associate director for research capability at EPSRC. The research council is investing about ?250 million to establish the centres, which will cover subjects across its remit, including digital economy, energy (for example, carbon capture and storage), and nanoscience applications. A number of the bids under consideration are led by chemistry departments.


’The point of the centres is to provide students that are well aligned with the needs of employers,’ says Viner. Groups of students will start their PhDs at the same time and each centre is expected to take on about 10 new students each year. EPSRC generally funds PhD students for 3.5 years but students at the centres will have four years in which to complete their PhDs. What really makes the centres stand out though is the training that is provided, especially during the first PhD year, when students will generally follow a formal programme of taught coursework. 

EPSRC already supports a number of similar doctoral training centres (DTCs) in systems biology, at the life sciences interface, and in ’complexity science’ - science that doesn’t fit within conventional boundaries. EPSRC hopes that the new set of centres for doctoral training will include some more in complexity science, materials science, and engineering. The new centres will be modelled on the existing DTCs.

Understanding the challenges 

DTC students typically spend their first year doing a formal and assessable programme of taught coursework. At Imperial College London’s chemical biology DTC, students study for an MRes in their first year, with an interdisciplinary project and taught courses in chemical biology and physical sciences. Andrew de Mello, professor of chemical nanosciences at Imperial College London, has PhD students at the DTC. ’In the first year, students get a very good understanding of the challenges in a broader research area rather than just jumping into a PhD on a specific topic,’ he says. ’Students who come through the DTC are quite mature in the way that they think about science. It’s a very good way of transitioning from an undergraduate degree to a PhD.’  

Guy Orpen, dean of science and professor of chemistry at Bristol University, agrees. He is involved with the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, a major collaboration across four faculties, whose first students started last October. ’Our general impression is that you get very good students wanting to come to a DTC and that those students are a pleasure to work with,’ says Orpen. ’It seems to be a very powerful way of adding value to their previous disciplinary education to make them into the interdisciplinary scientist that they’re going to be.’ Orpen does, however, have slight reservations about the research element of the PhD being limited to three years. ’If students are spending a year being educated rather than doing research then it puts pressure on the time for research,’ he says. ’We just have to be a bit careful that we strike the right balance between added value of education and completing a very challenging bit of research.’ 

The DTCs are physical centres and students are in daily contact with each other. ’You very much get a team atmosphere with the DTC,’ says de Mello. Orpen agrees: ’the students learn from each other very effectively in the DTC environment - that adds a lot.’ EPSRC is looking for collaborative involvement in a fairly large proportion of the centres, which could range from industry help with resources to access to industry training courses.  

Industrial interest 

Bristol University has submitted several centre proposals, a couple of which involve chemistry. A proposed chemical synthesis centre has early indications of considerable industry support, says Orpen. ’Industry has shown a lot of interest in co-funding students and some commitment of co-funding for the centre has been secured even though it doesn’t exist yet,’ he says.  

’I suspect that the doctoral centres will appeal to the modern student,’ adds Orpen. ’It’s a slightly more structured approach to graduate education - if it’s done in the right way it will considerably enhance the student experience and the research capabilities of the students.’ 

And the response from industry has been similarly encouraging, according to Viner at EPSRC. ’Employers rave about the quality of the people that they get out of these centres,’ he says. 

Emma Davies is a freelance writer based in Bishop’s Stortford, UK