This autumn sees the launch of 45 Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) in science and engineering in 20 universities across the UK

Chemistry and graduation images

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A new way to gain a PhD

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with 'new' money to the tune of £250m, each Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) is expected to take on 10 students per year for the next five years to study for a four-year Phd. While some of the centres will be looking predominantly for chemistry graduates, others will require a mix of scientists and engineers. The centres, however, represent not only a new approach to funding chemical research in universities by EPSRC but, by extending the length of time allocated to doctoral studies to four years, will give chemistry departments the opportunity to provide PhD students with more training and a different experience to the traditional three-year PhD. The centres have been welcomed by the Royal Society of Chemistry.  

A cultural change

Doctoral Training Centres are not in themselves new, they have existed in other disciplines, including the life sciences and engineering, for many years. In common they offer PhD-level research alongside taught courses, and are aimed at students who want a career in industry. 

Traditionally the PhD experience in the chemical sciences has involved students working under the supervision of one academic, often in isolation, albeit within a group, and predominantly in one department. While some chemistry students get the opportunity to work in collaboration with industrial partners, they also tend to work on one project within one group. While this approach has and does lead to highly specialised and employable chemists, and will continue to be on offer, industry often comments that these graduates lack some of the transferable skills - such as communication skills and the ability to solve problems outside their area - that it increasingly needs in today's ever demanding and competitive world.  

The new DTCs will run four-year courses, the first year of which will have a training focus that will include generic and lab skills, industrial training as well as some research. Importantly, there will be time built in to allow students to choose their main research project for the remaining three years. The 10 students will be part of an inter-/multi-disciplinary team of academics and industrialists, and will get the opportunity to network widely with team members, and generally expand their horizons and transferable skills. 

The DTCs will also go some way to aligning the UK PhD experience for chemists with that of their counterparts in Europe and the US, where PhD training is longer and, many argue, offers more flexibility and breadth, and time to develop and be creative.  

Chemists take up the challenge

From the EPSRC viewpoint, the DTCs are a way of providing extra resource to tackle the 'grand challenges' of the 21st century, such as climate change, energy and healthcare for an ageing population. This is reflected in the successful proposals. So, for example, there will be centres in sustainable chemical technologies at Bath, hydrogen, fuel cells and their application at Birmingham, chemical synthesis as well as advanced composites and functional nanomaterials at Bristol, technologies for a low-carbon future at Leeds, and efficient power from fossil fuel-based energies and carbon capture technologies at Nottingham, among others.  

The University of Bristol's Doctoral Training Centre - Bristol Chemical Synthesis - is one of four centres to be awarded EPRSC funding at Bristol and has already attracted support from the pharmaceutical industry in terms of extra funding for additional studentships, placements, industrial workshops and training.  

Professor Kevin Booker-Milburn, director of the centre, told Education in Chemistry, 'Our vision is to approach the whole area of chemical synthesis as a group rather than as individuals. By bringing together inorganic, organic and even physical chemists to collaborate we will break down these traditional barriers, and together with our Academic Industrial Consortium of some eight pharmaceutical companies, provide a more "holistic" experience for our postgraduates'.  

Part of the first year's training course at the Bristol Chemical Synthesis centre will include initiatives that will build confidence in the students' own abilities, something that Booker-Milburn says is often lacking in today's postgraduates nationally. The department's already proven e-learning resource, the dynamic chemical laboratory manual, is being developed to run postgraduate experiments from which the students will get a chance to gain confidence in lab skills before doing their experiments in the lab. The centre will also be setting up weekly brainstorming sessions for the students to consider all the research proposals on offer. Staff will provide research portfolios in advance, explained Booker-Milburn, and the students will discuss these (without staff present) and try to work out potential solutions. This will develop their confidence and help them to decide which of the proposals they want to do as their PhD. 

Building on best practice

'There's nothing wrong with the traditional PhD experience', said Booker-Milburn, 'the DTC will give us the opportunity to take the best of what we do now, including our industrial interactions, and add a stronger networking function'.