How to avoid reaching beyond your grasp

March 7, 1997

AN INNOVATIVE graduate training programme at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology is helping to improve PhD submission rates and aid job hunting.

The Graduate Support Programme (Grasp) was started by UMIST's total technology unit in October 1994 in order to teach basic research skills to some 150 PhD students now expanded to 350. It is thought to be the first integrated programme of its kind.

First year PhD students attended Tuesday afternoon lectures covering 22 skills identified as integral to managing a doctoral research programme. Skills included were research methodology, project planning and control, resource and time management, using computers, report writing, academic English, ethics and presentation skills.

Lectures also covered management skills covering leadership and teamwork, managing meetings, assertiveness, planning for the future, communication skills, managing stress and product design and development.

Final year PhDs attended a series of lecturers under the headings of industry, research skills and job-hunting skills. They learned about company structure, marketing, manufacturing, thesis writing, CV writing and job interviews.

Monitoring of and encouraging of attendance at the sessions was seen as a key issue. Certificates of completion were ruled out, being seen as pointless for doctoral students, while compulsory attendance was seen as too bureaucratic and likely to annoy students.

Experience has shown that the best approach is for supervisors to talk to their students both prior to the start of their project, to assess their training needs, and after the Grasp sessions. Supervisors can then work out whether students have been attending the lectures.

Peter Primrose, who works in the total technology unit, said: "The main aims of Grasp are to increase PhD submission rates and to help students make a successful transition to their future careers.

"Already feedback is being received from final-year students and this is being used to help improve the job-hunting element of the programme. Trying to improve PhD submission rates, however, is rather like steering a supertanker: it takes a long time between taking corrective action and seeing the results."

Computer-aided learning techniques are being developed to provide student feedback in a more structured way, allowing continual adjustment and improvement of the programme. It is also hoped to increase last year's 84 lecture hours in the first year programme to 300 hours, amounting to around 20 per cent of a first year PhD.

It is also possible that a shorter training programme may be designed for exam and dissertation MSc students.

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