Degrees of restriction

September 11, 1998

As research training schemes expand and the taught component of PhDs grows, questions are arising about the direction of degrees. Natasha Loder reports.

Research training can be serious stuff. Students may be offered courses such as research methods, teaching, communication, computing, presentation, thesis writing, budget handling, viva skills and management. The main point of providing research training programmes is to make PhD graduates better equipped to get a job - especially outside academia, where most of them will end up.

It is also hoped that more time spent on training will improve completion rates by helping students better organise their time and research, though it is too early to tell if this will be the case. Although there is widespread acknowledgement of the educational value of giving research students transferable skills, many graduate schools say that the real driving force behind the rapid growth of RTPs around the country is the pressure being placed on them by research funders.

The start of all the changes to the PhD can probably be traced back to when the Economic and Social Research Council introduced its sanctions policy to combat low PhD submissions rates in the social sciences. Having questioned the previously fundamental law of academia - that PhDs were potentially open-ended magna opera - the ESRC decided to shift the emphasis of PhDs from "content to process". Phil Sooben, the ESRC's director of postgraduate training, explained that "a PhD is to train someone as a researcher as much as to produce a substantial and original piece of work in its own right". The ESRC not only insists that universities provide research training in order to qualify for studentships, but also accredits training courses every four years. To get funding for PhDs now, two other councils insist that universities provide research training. This week, the Natural Environment Research Council said it was making moves in the same direction.

When introduced, RTPs become a compulsory part of a student's degree. In some cases a complete training record, along with a record of talks and reports given, is kept. As the taught component of PhDs continues to rise (in some cases up to six months), it seems highly likely that such records will become part of a student's final assessment. The University of Manchester - widely regarded by research funders and other universities as a leader in the field of graduate training - is moving in this direction. Anne White, director of graduate training at the school of biological sciences, said: "In the future, it (a record of achievement) will be a compulsory part of their final viva."

Much of the initial hostile reaction seems to have been due to anger that the gold-standard PhD was being marred by the new time limits and taught courses. At a more subtle level, some of the resentment may have been because it compromised the age-old ideology mentor/apprentice relationship. Some universities employ a third-party adviser, whose functions include keeping an eye on the supervisor.

Whatever the initial reaction, it seems fairly clear to everyone that the PhD is changing fundamentally. Its length and independence have been changed, and some argue that a PhD's depth has been reduced.

But who is in the driving seat? Individual research councils may know what they want, but there appears to be little overall debate about the future shape of Britain's PhDs.

Although research councils claim positive feedback from students, nobody knows whether students have improved career prospects or do different research as a result of research training.

Malcolm McCrae, chair of the University of Warwick's graduate school, said:

"It is not clear that there is an appreciation by the research councils that if training is included it will inevitably have an effect on research."

In the United States the model of student training is much more advanced. There, PhD students take up to seven years to complete both research and training.

At only three funded years, the UK is "increasingly trying to squeeze not even a quart but a gallon into a pint pot", Professor McCrae warns.

There seems an obvious need to increase the PhD funding period, but at present this is not possible. Dr Sooben said: "The Office of Science and Technology's position is that we cannot offer four years of funding."

Which research councils require PhD research training for studentships?

Natural Environment Research Council No

Medical Research Council Yes

Economic and Social Research Council Yes

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council No

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council No. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Yes

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