PhD courses must prepare students for a life after research, says Mark Peplow

On a crisp February morning, as a dusting of snow settled across Windsor Great Park, just outside london, 31 PhD students crunched up the gravel driveways of Cumberland Lodge, ready to think about their futures. 

For those about to confront that most terrifying of questions – ‘What shall I do with my life?’ – I can think of few better environs than the solid-oak serenity of a 17th century country house. The lodge, a Crown property, is run by a charitable foundation to host academic meetings, particular those focused on student development. I was lucky enough to be there as one of the tutors on a two-day careers course. 

Judging by the students’ feedback, the course was a huge success. And it also taught me just how much science PhDs are changing – and how students’ training must change with it. 

Just a few percent of today’s graduates will end up in permanent academic jobs; the majority will have careers outside of research. That makes it more important than ever for PhD courses to furnish students with the skills they need to flourish in whatever career they pursue.

Fresh blood

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) recognised this when it funded the first Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) in 2008. The centres train students in a broader set of professional skills than a traditional research PhD. CDTs usually have strong links to industry, and students are often involved in interdisciplinary work spanning several research groups. Some centres even run ‘Dragon’s Den’ events where students can pitch business ideas, potentially winning funding and entrepreneurial training to help commercialise their ideas. 

A PhD can be much more than a mechanism to supply academia

There are now more than 100 EPSRC-funded CDTs across the UK, drawing roughly 40% of the council’s postgraduate training budget. Some researchers have expressed concerns that the centres’ research programmes may not be up to scratch. But CDTs demonstrate that a PhD can be much more than a mechanism to supply academia with fresh blood. 

Careers training is a core part of the CDTs’ mandate, and this prompted Adrian Sutton, a materials physicist at Imperial College, London, to set up the Cumberland Lodge course four years ago. At the latest event, tutors offered one-to-one feedback on CVs and cover letters, and ran practice interviews that included questions ranging from ‘Why do you want this job?’ to ‘Why are manhole covers round?’. It emphasised the value of networking, and offered practical advice on how to forge the professional contacts that can lead to job opportunities. The students also met an impressive panel of guest speakers who had taken their science PhDs into fields as diverse as energy policy and the financial industry. 

Residential courses are not cheap (the event cost about £400 per student), but Sutton is convinced that it offers value for money. Away from their institutions, the students can focus on planning their careers, free from the temptation to drift back to the lab. They also have ample time to buttonhole tutors individually.

University careers centres already offer some of these services, but remarkably few PhD students actually take advantage of them. Perhaps they are sceptical about the value of careers advice, or struggle to extract themselves from the lab. Others may simply not feel ready to grapple with the daunting prospect of job-hunting. 

That underscores the value of a course that is an explicit part of PhD training, rather than just an optional extra. Students must, of course, take responsibility for their own life choices. But universities and research supervisors also have a responsibility to provide students with the information they need to make a truly informed decision about their future.

Transferable skills

Some academics can be quite scathing about the value of professional skills training, and grumble that it takes up time that would be better spent in the lab. There is also a widespread perception that a research career is the default option for a PhD student, and that other career paths amount to little more than ‘opting out’.

That attitude needs to change. Supervisors must be candid about the prospects of an academic career, and accept that those choosing other routes are not failures. If we want to maintain PhD recruitment levels, then it’s in everyone’s interest to make a PhD stint as attractive and valuable an experience as possible. Excellent research must remain the primary goal, but a PhD course should also deliver students who can think and work independently, and who can tackle complicated problems as part of a team.

Supervisors have a duty to prepare their students for a fulfilling career, irrespective of whether that is in academia or not. Indeed, recognising that a PhD can be a springboard to many different career paths is the first step towards ensuring that students have every opportunity to succeed.