A redefinition of PhDs is urgently needed to end confusion among postgraduates and avoid an international downgrading of British research degrees, according to the National Postgraduate Committee.
General secretary Ewan Gillon, speaking at the committee's annual conference in Edinburgh last week, said that more people now studied for PhDs to improve their job prospects outside higher education.
They wanted doctorates that concentrated less on narrow academic fields than on the general disciplines of acquiring the top-class research and communication skills that are highly valued outside academe.
He said: "There is a conflict over what constitutes the nature of the PhD and a real lack of a clear understanding of what people are doing them for. This could result in a lack of competence because if a student does not know precisely what to look for, then how do they know what to ask?" He said this raised the problem of the quality of postgraduate supervision in that supervisers were increasingly unclear about the sort of advice they should be offering to students. This lack of clarity could, he suggested, affect the numbers of overseas students seeking to do their doctorates in the United Kingdom.
A show of hands revealed that fewer than half of the two dozen or so postgraduate delegates present had received any kind of teaching or job skills training.
Another straw poll showed that the overwhelming majority would appreciate such training "if the quality was right".
Karen Hinett from the University of Central Lancashire, who chaired the debate, said: "There seems to be some confusion about what transferable skills actually mean: help for people wishing to teach or more generic training. There is a sense that the universities have thrown these things together."
The conference suggested that, instead of the often compulsory training courses run for postgraduates, institutions might consider a more flexible approach allowing students to build individual skills accreditations into personal portfolios.