Preparing PhDs for work – Also outside academia

The League of European Research Universities, or LERU, has published an ‘advice paper’ on Good Practice Elements in Doctoral Training. It informs the academic part of research training and is a repository of good ideas and practices by some of Europe’s leading PhD training institutions.

The most important messages highlighted in the paper are these: PhDs are increasingly drivers of their own professional development; and the training model in which the PhD candidate is heavily dependent on one supervisor is no longer robust.

Being drivers of their professional development is important for the writing of PhD theses, even more so with regard to obtaining competencies during doctoral training in transferable skills.

Supply opportunities where candidates can engage themselves to acquire transferable skills are extensively documented, and are diverse at member institutions of LERU, which is an association of research universities.

The good thing about the report is that over and over again it demonstrates that some of the most research-intensive universities in Europe are prioritising transferable skills, which are now being built into training programmes for doctoral candidates and, most frequently it seems, as elective course options and often in collaboration with other organisations.

The introduction presents 29 such transferable competencies like ‘working in teams’, ‘persisting in achieving long-term goals’ and ‘understanding the working of a specific high-level research-intensive environment’.

Such competencies are found in different courses such as master-classes in promoting creativity and risk-taking in novel research, toolkits to help doctoral researchers with information management in research, monitoring work progress to support students to finish their PhD successfully and on time – such as University College London’s Student log – and many more.

Other examples of innovative courses are the PhD employer forum at University College London, where a panel of speakers who themselves are PhD holders are invited to talk about their sector, career progression and the best routes into their position.

The university has also developed Leadership in Action, an ‘open’ programme helping researchers to initiate collaborative and interdisciplinary projects and to develop the “mental toughness and resilience that is needed to sail through the PhD”.

The University of Zurich has a total of 280 courses a year on the acquisition of funding, teaching, writing-publishing, job application training and other topics, and Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University has since 2006 had a Doc’Up association of PhD students who organise events such as breakfasts, aperitifs, dinners or discussion forums.

At the University of Edinburgh, new PhD students in many schools are assigned a thesis committee. The committees have three to five members, including both of the student’s supervisors and at least one independent person who has not been involved to any significant extent, either academically or administratively, with the student.

Students have reported that they particularly value having an external member of the thesis committee.

The Royal Society (2010) is quoted in the report as having found that more than 50% of doctoral candidates in the UK take up employment outside academia after a PhD and that only 3.5% end up in permanent academic positions.

There is no Danish member of LERU. Therefore there is no inclusion of experience with the industrial doctorate that has been operating in Denmark since the 1980s and has now been incorporated in the Marie-Sklodowska Curie programme under Horizon 2020.