Natasha Loder reports on an engineering qualification that could land its graduates fat wage packets in heavy industry
One of the largest research councils - the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Councils - last year filled only 85 per cent of its studentships, a figure that continues a worrying trend for the council.
But one EPSRC scheme that has been managing to buck this trend is the engineering doctorate. This year, the scheme is expanding from 75 to 100 places - with a doubling of the number of university-based centres taking these students.
The four-year EngD is, says EPSRC, "especially popular with students and employers". Andy Rawlins, the scheme manager, says it is "aimed at the next generation of research managers, people who not only do research but have business skills. They will, in time, end up as research managers and go a long way in industry."
Three years are spent working on an industrial project based in a company. The fourth year comes from a year's worth of coursework. Of the research engineers, Rawlins says: "Most think of themselves as employees. They only go to university to do their coursework. It is a requirement (of the company) that they are treated as employees and given full resources."
For the companies involved it is a very cost-effective way of getting research done. Many offer students employment after the EngD is completed. EPSRC says of the scheme: "It is a radical alternative to the traditional PhD, being better suited to the needs of industry, and providing a more vocationally oriented doctorate in engineering. Evidence suggests that graduates from the scheme achieve better job offers, starting salaries and career progression than those carrying out a more traditional PhD or MSc."
The Warwick Centre, based at the Warwick Manufacturing Group, now has more than 100 research engineers enrolled. Director Kevin Neailey says: "We are trying to develop individuals who are capable of implementing innovation in an engineering business. While the traditional PhD is concerned mainly with improving the body of knowledge, our emphasis is firmly on innovation in the application of knowledge."
The Warwick programme has many participants in full-time employment whose research is integrated with their daily work. Other participants are based at the university and are attached to one or more companies. Each research engineer has both an academic and an industrial mentor.
One EPSRC research engineer, Lucy Wright, who did not want to do a "straight PhD" found the EngD an "ideal solution". "I had always been interested in environmental issues, but didn't think I was sufficiently qualified to go straight into a job."
Wright works at Nokia in Surrey, looking at "strategic ways of broadening the environmental management of mobile phones". Another participant, Fiona Patterson, says of the scheme: "One of the things I really like about the EngD is that you must apply your research to make sure that it can work in reality - so that people can actually use it.
"The taught modules are useful to broaden your horizons and learn about different aspects of industry. Because you have to go back to the company and apply what has been learned, you are forced to find out much more about how the business operates."
A recent review of the scheme by a panel of academics and industrialists was "very positive" says Rawlins. "I'd be surprised if it were not expanded further. It's our flagship postgraduate scheme. It gives the highest quality training, it's also the most expensive to run - but it gets the best students."