Doctoring the degree

May 17, 1996

Aisling Irwin on doctorates experimenting with vivas and theses. Imagine a doctorate with no viva. Instead, the student must give an open defence of their thesis, which anyone can attend. The first batch of doctoral students to endure such an experience are due to go through it this summer. They will have finished their engineering doctorates, a pioneering new qualification pitched at PhD level.

Imagine next that a large part of the thesis is a portfolio built up over four years. Students cannot alter anything that they have put into the portfolio over those years: if a statement made six months ago now looks naive then the naivete will remain there, painfully, for ever. "Just as it would if you said something similar in industry," says Chris France, lecturer in environmental technology, who oversees the EngD programme at Brunel University.

Students, or "research engineers" as the organisers of the doctorate prefer to call them, seem quite happy with these quirks.

"I think by the end of four years I will know enough to defend it to anybody," says Nicolette Lawson, who is doing an EngD while working at Lucas Industries.

Being forced to build a portfolio gives the student structure: "I can see that I wouldn't organise my time well enough to do a PhD," says Lawson.

The EngD began in 1992 in an attempt to mould the talents of doctoral students into knockout hybrids of industrial savvy and academic rigour. It was a response to the Parnaby report which was concerned that PhDs were not providing industry with the right skills.

It must demonstrate innovation in the application of knowledge in business. "We have found it is almost impossible to do this without increasing the body of knowledge as well," says Kevin Neailey, who coordinates Warwick University's EngD.

The EngD varies in these novel features according to institutions. It began at Warwick, UMIST and Manchester universities and a Welsh consortium led by University College Swansea. But all require research engineers to do a project in industry. Students are propelled by their academic supervisors into tackling long-term problems and applying a rigour for which their industrial counterparts may not have time.

As well as balancing these demands, they are put through a stream of taught courses and character-building stuff such as presenting papers at conferences.

It is stressful. And for extra tension, the supervisors (at Warwick at least) insist that the thesis be submitted on time. Industry would not tolerate the kind of delays that can attend the completion of a PhD thesis, says Neailey.

The 100 students around the country who are now doing the doctorate come from a variety of backgrounds: those just-graduated; wanting academic input after a few years in industry; undecided about whether to go into academia or industry; or looking for a career change.

There are several lures. The pay is better, sometimes incomparably better, than that for a PhD. Many EngDs are funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which hands out a bigger grant than it does for the PhD (Pounds 7,685 outside London). In addition there is a minimum industrial contribution of Pounds 2,200. Other EngD students are entirely funded by industry - some students already have a salaried job with a company before they start the doctorate. There is also the advantage that the doctorate is portrayed as a degree for high-flyers - graduates will emerge in the fast-stream whether they go into industry or academia.

The disadvantages are less obvious to start with. It is hard work. Serving two masters can be frustrating. And all the students are guinea pigs.

Dan Francis chose the EngD after a few months researching at Brunel University having completed a masters degree (Brunel, Surrey and Cranfield universities joined the scheme in 1993).

Francis does his project in the research and development arm of a giant telecommunications company, Nortel. The company wanted someone to study the environmental impact of its production processes. Francis has deepened the project into a lifecycle analysis (LCA), an assessment of the environmental impact of products from cradle to grave.

Because Francis has found himself in a research environment in industry, he says what he is doing "differs very little from a job with them". Critics may feel he will therefore be getting letters after his name for no extra effort. But Chris France says: "We are at least the intellectual level of the PhD."

And Lawson says that the academic input keeps her practical work in check: "I'm used to jumping to conclusions and taking the shortest practical route I can and the need to think about the academic content has forced me to go back and think about why things happen."

But although they welcome the academic rigour, they chose the EngD because it was not solely academic. Lawson says: "A lot of people work in isolation doing PhDs and they go round and round becoming more specialised without relating it to something practical." She had worked for six years in industry and was looking for an academic course to send her career in a different direction. The MScs she considered were too specialised, and she did not want to give up work for three years to do a PhD. The EngD was the answer.

The curious mixture of the academic and industrial has attracted some zealots, particularly to Brunel, which with Surrey specialises in applying environmental ideas to industry. For example, Lawson wanted the doctorate to enable her to put into practice some of her strongly held views: "I have a thing about waste. I started thinking about all the ways in which industry could improve. There just seems to be so much to do."

Graham Robertson, another keen environmentalist, had spent his career darting between medical microbiology and schoolteaching. His four reasons for doing the EngD begin with the desire to make industry more sustainable (followed by a desire to stop working in the public sector, the fact that pay is much better than for a PhD, and the academic challenge).

"I see myself as a bit of a preacher," he says. He is with Britannia Refined Metals, a lead and silver smelter which he is now trying to get to alter its methods fundamentally in the long term.

With possible conflicts between industry and academia, a lot of work goes into keeping both sides talking to each other. Francis says: "I can see there would be problems for some, where the nature of the research has moved them away from one party or another. There has to be very good communication. Some students do have difficulties with communication although I wouldn't say that was a characteristic."

Conflicting demands could get extreme. Chris France says: "Some sponsors have been very interested in the fact that they can get a very cheap pair of hands."

Robertson says: "If you're not careful you end up becoming a company employee." The lead smelter has sometimes categorised him along with other students it has employed, whereas Robertson feels he should have more autonomy.

"Because I'm moving towards a doctoral thesis I have had to explain to them what I think the major problems are [at the firm]. It took me the first year to understand what the industry is all about and then say they have got to look at the more distant problems which could be totally threatening to the business. It has been quite hard."

However hard the four years are, many students are already showing signs of success. Francis has published two papers as a result of his work. At Warwick, the first and second intakes of students have produced five patents between them.

And successfully completing the EngD could do wonders for a student's career. Francis hopes it will catapult him forwards in industry.

Lawson may go into academia but "only if it was an enlightened institution that had links with industry".

It is possible that some EngDs have been victims of their own success. Drop-outs at Warwick have reached 10 per cent, which Neailey insists is mainly because students have found their careers taking off in industry, leading to moving abroad or promotion.

To create a new, high-calibre academic qualification with as significant a reputation as the PhD cannot be achieved in a couple of years. Neailey says there has been a problem in getting acceptance - in convincing people that the EngD is equal to the PhD while not being the same.

He says: "It will take some time for people to realise how different it is. It is not until we have a body of people who are waving EngDs around that people will be able to see the difference."

If, after this summer's graduation, the students jet off into high-flying industry jobs or research teams, it will be a sign that this battle could eventually be won. But some organisers are even more optimistic than this.

Chris France says: "I think it is a much better way to get a doctorate and it will become dominant over the PhD in applied science." He has been bombarded with applications: 190 this year after just one advertisement.

If his predictions prove to be correct, PhD students had better start worrying.

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