Placements useful because PhDs need Plan B

Universities are struggling to balance recommendations to send PhD students on internships with the fact that their supervisors often fail to see the value of such placements, a conference has heard.

June 7, 2012

The government-commissioned Wilson Review of Business-University Collaboration, published in February, called for all PhD students to do an 8- to 12-week placement during the course of their degrees.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council plans to make such placements mandatory as part of its four-year Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) scheme, which will launch in October.

But although universities are boosting their efforts to provide placements, time constraints are proving a problem, said Rebekah Smith McGloin, manager of the University of Nottingham DTP.

Speaking at an event on internships held by Vitae, the body that promotes career development among research students and staff, on 29 May, she said: "The first thing academics ask when I talk to them about placements is: 'Are the students going to submit on time?'"

Some academics also struggle to understand the value of internships, which the government and funders argue boost student skills and bring research expertise to industry and other sectors.

Buzz Baum, a group leader at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London, said stressing that internships are not about encouraging students to leave research would be the only way to win over academics.

"Whatever the placement is, it should not be an exit, but about making students better at doing their PhDs," he said.

But a number of speakers highlighted that placements are useful precisely because the majority of PhD students do not go on to academic careers.

Mark Burgess, assistant director of research services at UCL, said there were not enough academic jobs to go round.

"There is a need to prepare for a career outside the academy...many supervisors and students know this is a fact of life," he said.

Other problems highlighted at the event included finding enough placements in suitable organisations across the range of businesses and non-profit organisations - and convincing students to take them up.

Kathy Barrett, a consultant at the University of London Careers Group, added that it had found in a recent survey that although employers are keen to host PhD students, they also have concerns that they would be less deferential than undergraduates and demand higher pay.

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