The student voice in the debate over UK Doctoral Training Centres
In the academic year 2011-12 the EPSRC, a UK science funding council, pulled funding for about a third of the physical science PhD project studentships the organisation had previously funded. Academia was feeling the first fruits of the council’s decision to scrap project studentships completely and, perhaps understandably, many greeted the news with dismay. The move was part of the EPSRC’s shaping capability strategy – the council’s plan to change the way it funds UK science during the recession. The goal is to ensure UK research remains top quality, but also contibutes profit-making innovations to the economy (some academics are really quite angry about this latter part).
So traditional PhD projects – where a student is assigned a supervisor in a specific subject, and then basically just gets on with their research for three years, emerging as an expert on the other side – are beginning to disappear in the UK. In their place a new way of training PhD students is emerging: the Centre for Doctoral Training (or CDT) .
There are several differences between a CDT and a traditional project studentship PhD. For one thing, CDT students generally spend their first year doing ‘research broadening sabaticals’ in several different labs, rather than jumping straight into one project. This means the PhD lasts four years instead of the traditional three and that the students, in theory, have a broader knowledge of their subject. They also receive specially tailored training in ‘transferable skills’, and generally “more attention from academics” (as we’ll hear in a moment).
Unfortunately, all this comes at a price. Each CDT student accounts for about 60% more cash per year than an equivalent project studentship. Perhaps because of this, CDTs polarise academic opinion. One told me that the “soft skills” the candidates would develop were “an appalling waste of young scientists’ talent and an utter waste of tax revenue”. Other academics remain in favour of CDTs, arguing that multidisciplinary scientists are an absolute prerequisite for the kind of complex science that goes on in the 21st century.
So who is right – are CDTs the way forward, or a dangerous detour? I co-authored this article on the subject, where I noted down some of the complicated issues surrounding this debate. But I felt like the voice of the students was missing; one criticism of the CDTs is that they create a two-tier atmosphere, where the remaining project studentship guys are left feeling like second class citizens in the presence of their trained-up, super charged CDT peers. But is that actually true – do the students really feel like that? I decided it would be a good idea to ask them. So – equipped with bad coffee from the library canteen – I sat down to have a chat with Tom, Jazz and Freddie, three students from Imperial College London’s Department of Materials. Allow me to introduce them:
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One thing I uncovered in my research into this topic were fears that tensions would develop between CDT students and project studentship students. With all that extra money and special training being bestowed on those in the CDT, would ‘outsiders’ feel a bit jealous? Here’s another extract from our conversation:
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So maybe there is a little inter-PhD course tension! But of course each CDT is different. I had already spoken to Adrian Sutton, the founder of the CDT that Tom and Jazz are part of, and he told me it was very much his mission to have the benefits that the CDT brought to his department “spill over” into the rest of the school’s research too. An independent mid-term review  of the EPSRC’s CDTs seemed to agree that this could happen, saying that CDTs could ‘act as a nucleation site[s] to focus a range of research and training activities.’ But this has to be driven by the management team, it doesn’t just happen automatically.
I asked the students what they thought about the staff managing their CDT. It sounds like a best practice from the CDT is shared accross the department, so how important were the staff in shaping this experience?
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Lastly we turned to the issue of multidisciplinary science. Almost the whole point of CDTs is that they are multidisciplinary. But perhaps some types of science don’t fit neatly into that mould – do CDTs suit some types of science better than others?
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Interestingly the students agreed that some subjects are inherently multidisciplinary, and so that suits the CDT model quite well. But, according to Freddie, it’s not that people who do project studentship PhDs are somehow incapable of working in multidisciplinary environments, it’s just that CDTs have that idea specifically in mind.
It was good to talk to the students – I feel like now I have a much fuller picture of the debate. Having said that it won’t, of course, make any difference; CDTs seem to be here to stay.
Not all academics are completely happy with that. Recently the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology asked a range of expert witnesses about whether PhD training in the UK is on the right track (as part of a wider report on higher education in STEM subjects). The Engineering Professors Council (EPC) said (pdf, see p. 169) that some of their members would contend that “a PhD is a journey of scientific discovery; some training along the way may be helpful but it is not the main point.” So clearly some still see all the extra training the CDT students get as a dilution.
The consensus seems to be that CDTs are good, as long as they are done well. But perhaps we shouldn’t assume a PhD training monopoly for the CDTs would be a good thing. The EPC put this quite nicely, so let’s give them the final word:
“We would see advantage in having several [PhD training] models working side by side, to give flexibility and the best capture of excellent candidates. DTCs fit within this, but should not be the only model”. (p. 171).
1. Confusingly, people sometimes refer to these as ‘Doctoral Training Centres’, so on occasions the acronym becomes DTC instead of CDT.
2. The word ‘independent’ might be slightly misleading here. The pannel of reviewers included academics from Oxford University and Newcastle University, both of which host EPSRC funded CDTs. So, by ‘independent’ the EPSRC obviously don’t mean that the reviewers had no professional connection with CDTs.
IMAGES: Flickr, CIMMYT
I’m going to make myself unpopular by saying this, but as a doctoral graduate from a good university who left academia after despairing about ever having any job security, and who has watched too many friends fret and struggle to find academic jobs, while feeling that anything else would be a kind of failure, I say: good. We are producing too many doctors. We give the impression that a PhD is a ticket to a stimulating career of independent thought only for nine out of ten PhDs to be forced out of research for want of a job. And spare me the spiel about transferable skills and the goodness of just having PhDs kicking around in society. Transferable skills are transferable because they’re common, and so can be learned elsewhere. Better to focus on giving fewer doctoral candidates the best possible shot than churning them out by the dozen to somehow boost our national self esteem.