Doctoral training programmes: worthwhile or not?

If the chance to work with gifted people and across unfamiliar disciplines appeals, a doctoral training programme could be for you, whether you’re a student or an academic

Graham Huggan's avatar
University of Leeds
7 Oct 2022
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Are you interested, if you’re a staff member, in setting up a doctoral training programme (DTP) in the UK? Are you curious, if you’re a student, about applying for one? My experiences as a staff member have been overwhelmingly positive, and from feedback I’ve had from students, their experiences in these programmes have been resoundingly positive as well.

I’ve set up or helped set up three DTPs in my career, two hosted in the UK and the other one in Germany. Easily the best resourced was an EU-funded Marie Curie Innovative Training Network (ITN), now known more simply – though that’s probably the only simple thing about it – as a doctoral network (DN).

Marie Curie DNs might be described as a kind of DTP-plus. Like nation-based DTPs, they involve a structured programme of academic activities and events, and like nation-based DTPs they usually involve collaboration with non-academic partners as well as academic ones. The “added value” of DNs is that these partnerships are international, and a large part of their appeal is the chance to work with people from other countries as well as from outside your “home” discipline. They also provide ample opportunities to work or study outside your host country, and indeed mobility of this kind is a standard requirement of a Marie Curie DN.

While Brexit has significantly reduced opportunities for British researchers wishing to team up with their continental European counterparts, British academics, at least at the time of writing, are still entitled to apply for Marie Curie DNs. They also provide the kind of funding that British-based humanities scholars like myself can only dream about, though to say it’s hard-won is an understatement. Applications, which are several months in the making, can amount to 50 single-spaced pages, and the success rate hovers around 5 per cent. Also, humanities-led ones are rarer than hen’s teeth – although that also goes for most EU-funded research programmes – and one of the few exceptions, HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), was recently shut down.

Is it worth my joining a DN?

My short answer to the question of whether it’s worth joining a DN? It absolutely is. Working with students and staff from outside the UK as well as within is a sheer joy, although there are definitely challenges: dealing with different university bureaucracies, for instance, or finding out that there’s no such thing as a three-year doctoral programme in Sweden.

Another obvious challenge is the interdisciplinary nature of such networks, which may be great – for staff and students alike – for thinking outside the box but can also be frustrating when little or no common ground can be found.

However, in my possibly rose-tinted view, the challenges of interdisciplinarity are overdrawn, and there’s a great deal to be said for simply learning from the experience. It’s also only to the good that staff learn as much as students from working beyond their “home” discipline. In my own case, I’ve probably learned more from anthropologists, geographers and biologists than anyone else, and much of that has been from participating in DNs.

How do I set up a DN or a DTP?

My advice to those thinking of going for a Marie Curie DN is to use the international contacts you already have, and to pay particularly close attention to involving non-academic partners. “Impact” is a key term, as one might expect, but it means different things in different European countries, and it’s best to seek local knowledge, ideally spread across different languages even if English ends up being the working language of the programme – which it mostly is, for better or worse. Native speakers of English beware: yours is not an automatic advantage, and if you’re not willing to at least attempt to speak other languages, then maybe DNs are not for you, after all.

For those preferring to stay on a potentially more manageable national level, the Leverhulme DTPs are a great UK scheme, although similar challenges apply in terms of combining different disciplinary knowledges. The key, at least in my own experience, is to choose staff from other departments you already know you can work with, then follow their advice on recruiting others.

Leverhulme DTPs aren’t as well-resourced as Marie Curie DNs, but they’re generous enough if you’re a student, and my advice here would be to make sure you strike a deal with your own university in terms of securing extra support. Otherwise, you could end up finding that you and your colleagues are unpaid volunteers, which comes with its own issues, however much you love the work.

To its credit, the Leverhulme Trust is beginning to recognise the need for its DTPs to be more diverse, and it has earmarked future funding for international students to offset the extortionate fees that British universities charge. The trust is quite flexible in terms of where the funding goes and is less fixated on (dread EU term) “deliverables”; is alert to equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives within the sector, and is also only too willing to endorse ring-fenced scholarships for BAME (British, Asian and minority ethnic) students.

What does a successful DN/DTP look like?

Finally, I hear you ask, what makes for a successful DN or DTP, and what strategies come into play in applying for one in funding competitions that seem to get more intense by the year?

To deal with the second of these questions first, it makes sense to keep a close eye on areas that are either: a) relatively new but lacking in national or international networks/programmes; or b) areas that have been funded on a national level but not an international one (or the other way round). If this sounds opportunist, that’s because it is – we academics shouldn’t kid ourselves, while DNs are at least honest in making it explicit that they’re aiming to develop their early stage researchers’ “entrepreneurial” skills.

The three networks/programmes that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in have been in postcolonial studies (in Germany in the 1990s, when it was beginning to come into vogue), environmental humanities (the above-mentioned ITN, at a time when a European network was clearly needed), and extinction studies (a recent Leverhulme-funded programme, and the first of its kind in the UK). All three, needless to say, range freely across disciplines, and all three were designed at least in part to address some of the major challenges of our times.

Last, but not least, what makes ventures like these successful? Part of it has to be learning from mistakes, and I’ve made plenty, such as not consulting enough with colleagues, being too impatient in trying to solve students’ problems, or – in the case of the Leverhulme programme – not getting enough university support in advance.

Part of it is also about being flexible enough to change what isn’t working, or to recognise that different approaches are needed in different contexts, although that’s perhaps more of a general life skill than anything else.

So, should you apply? Yes, you should! And will you enjoy it? Yes, you will! DNs and DTPs, not least because they’ve given me the chance to work with gifted students from around the world and gifted colleagues from disciplines that are unfamiliar to me, are easily the most pleasurable aspect of my work.

Graham Huggan is a professor in the School of English at the University of Leeds. His most recent monograph is Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The Cetacean Quartet (Bloomsbury Press, 2018).

He has been shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2022. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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