The three-year miracle can't last much longer

June 4, 1999

A doctorate has long been the near-compulsory licence for the would-be academic but no longer offers certain academic employment. It does, however, give access to research careers elsewhere. With wider participation, the PhD is becoming the portmanteau qualification for research-based employment.

With changed prospects have come increased pressures on PhD students (page 8). Greater emphasis on quality and assessment means that formal research training has been added to many PhD programmes. For engineering students there are special doctorates in which academic and commercial skills are combined (page 32). Debts from first degrees mean research students need to mix research with other work. All in all, the percentage of students able to complete a genuinely novel research project in three years is bound to dwindle.

There has long been discussion of the need to reform the PhD. This is now likely to be forced on universities and funders if they want to attract and nurture the most creative future researchers. Eking out a living after their three years' money runs out may be a formative experience but such trial by ordeal is risky, likely to deter too many of the brightest.

The Bett report may provide the opportunity for a rethink and greater differentiation between different types of research training. Support for high-flying academic PhD students could become part of the Bett process of enhancing academic salaries and conditions, while industry might contribute more to support those it wants to train for its own research purposes.

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