Which Skills for a PhD Student?

Training of PhD students. It’s a big topic and large sums of money are involved. As I wrote in the autumn, there are concerns about the decisions that are being made. With the recent announcement of 75 new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) by the EPSRC, the topic is bound to be in the air again. The blog-that-calls-itself UKRI Observatory did its third analysis of what was going on. This analysis focussed on the numbers that were not renewed and the universities that saw significant falls in the numbers they won. Their slant was that the lack of renewals implied the scheme wasn’t working and that the ‘excellence’ allegedly demanded wasn’t forthcoming. It could, on the other hand, reflect the fact that some subjects just weren’t seen as any longer needing CDTs. That might be because ‘fashions’ have changed, that the problems have been solved, or that there is no longer any relevant industry in the UK.

It isn’t clear to me what judgements about ‘excellence’ are being made: is it in the training, the topic, the PIs or the institution? It could in principle be any of these, but here let me explore what ‘training’ current cohorts of students are expected to be exposed to. I fear – from the rumours I hear – this is becoming quite prescriptive. But do courses on Powerpoint (again!), safety or entrepreneurship really prepare the student for the future? Is the EPSRC, or UKRI more generally, looking at courses on policy, grant-writing or team building? (I ask these questions from ignorance not sarcasm.)

Recently I have given two talks about my ‘life in science’ for want of a better word. In other words, talks about both my actual research and my career, given to PhD students (and some postdocs) in two universities. I talked about went wrong at different stages and, with hindsight, what enabled me to get past the hiccoughs; I talked about why I suspect most academics, however successful, didn’t necessarily set out knowing what they wanted to do or where/what they were aiming for. The number of professors who knew as they started their PhD that they wanted to be a professor in [insert chosen subject] and went in an arrow-straight line to the top without a glitch is, I would postulate based on multiple anecdotes but no data, tiny. And I spelled out that many in the audience would not be heading in that direction anyhow but should be thinking about all the skills, ‘soft’ skills (how I hate that rather pejorative word in this context, neatly skewered in a recent Financial Times article about the coming world of AI) that they are picking up along the way of their PhD.

What struck me was the response, particularly to the first talk over the ensuing sandwich lunch. ‘Why don’t we have more talks like this?’ was said to me several times. I think students are crammed with facts, indeed with ‘skills’ soft or otherwise, but given little chance to reflect or to put their experiences in context. Students need to know that confidence may only be skin deep, that their colleague at the bench with a big mouth has no monopoly on brains just because (s)he sounds off; they need to know that confusion about careers is normal; that no one finds it easy to do things the first time, be it a presentation or an interview; that being aware and supportive of struggling colleagues now is likely to make them a better leader later, whatever their chosen sphere of work. If they have a good supervisor maybe they learn these things, but too often the supervisor has more interest in chaining their students metaphorically to the bench than allowing them to express confusion and uncertainty. Somehow I doubt that any of the 75 selected CDT programmes specified they were going to offer courses in uncertainty (other than in measurements or quantum terms), let alone confusion.

The CBI frequently bemoans the fact that students aren’t being taught the skills they need for the workplace. This might be taken to mean that their ability to communicate intelligibly is weak (some supervisors may not be ideally placed to teach this topic either) or that their quantitative skills aren’t what might have been hoped for. However, a 2016 CBI survey suggested ‘By far the most important ‘skills’ factor centres on attitudes and aptitudes such as ability to present well.’ OK, maybe that Powerpoint course was necessary, but where do CDTs teach ‘attitudes’. Indeed, in any graduate or undergraduate course it is not a word that regularly turns up. Maybe this means resilience (which is more discussed currently than in the past), or even confidence; it could, of course, mean deference but it almost certainly also means leadership and management skills. Our university graduate courses have a way to go in meeting those needs.

I am not seriously suggesting EPSRC should judge future CDT allocations based on whether courses in confusion are provided. But I do believe we should be wary of filling timetables with more and more prescriptive courses, leaving little time for individual development and reflection. Universities should, in my view, do far more to train the supervisors and then let their newly-acquired skills be transmitted in the course of a research project to their students.

The word ‘excellence’ sounds so, well, excellent but it begs many questions. What should our training – even our education – for PhD students really comprise?  Research-specific skills of course; that has to remain at the heart of what PhD students learn, but are we in danger of getting rigid about the courses that students are exposed to, and not leaving enough time for real-life skills that matter in any workplace. Dealing with the difficult colleague who constantly disrupts your plans is as ubiquitous a problem in the office as in the lab and we should not forget the desirability of learning about interpersonal skills, as well as personal ones, as courses are devised and delivered.

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One Response to Which Skills for a PhD Student?

  1. Interesting article. We’re not sure how your alternative explanations about the CDT program scaling back make sense. If you are right, then EPSRC would have radically redesigned the competition whilst it was going on, without communicating that to anyone involved. Whatever they did do was a substantial departure from their plan for 90-120 centres (in the event they only funded 75). Unfortunately, there is still no explanation from them as to why this is so. Moreover, if there was a coherent plan, one has to ask why there is so much difficulty in providing feedback to those who were unsuccessful (https://physicsworld.com/a/dismay-as-cuts-hit-major-uk-phd-training-programme/). Or why EPSRC is rejecting all the FOI requests on this topic. And so on. Something has presumably gone badly wrong, otherwise EPSRC would be able to coherently explain their new plan for the CDT program and wouldn’t be being secretive about it. Most likely the government saw the scores and pulled a proportion of the funding and EPSRC don’t want to admit that. There could be other explanations, but whatever they are, they almost certainly won’t be good ones.

    The bigger problem perhaps is the great deal of secrecy, which makes it impossible to have a fully informed debate about how we train the next generations of PhD students in the UK. According to an FOI internal review response from Lancaster University (who is headed by Mark E Smith, the chair of the mid-term review panel and now a member of EPSRC’s Council), the CDT program operations are trade secrets, and disclosure would “allow competitor institutions to set up rival CDT’s without the investment” (apparently meaning it is not in the public interest to disclose the information). Mark E Smith even gave a s.36 opinion in support of that refusal notice saying that there would be “prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs”. It is a very strange affair, to say the least.

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