Cohort training keeps UK ahead

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Professor David Bogle, Head of the UCL Graduate School and Chair of the League of European Research Universities Doctoral Studies Community, welcomes the support for more Centres for Doctoral Training announced in the UK Budget.

Professor David Bogle

The announcement in the budget of funds for more Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) is welcome news. 

It is good to see doctoral training getting the high profile it deserves – as the supplier of trained researchers who help drive innovation. Research-intensive universities such as UCL seek to train creative, critical, autonomous, intellectual risk-takers who push back the boundaries of frontier research and take their research skills into society. 

UCL has had considerable success with winning bids for CDTs and now have a number funded by Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust. In fact the first one was the Neuroscience PhD Programme funded by the Wellcome Trust, launched in 1996.

We are now working towards many of our doctoral programmes run as cohorts in this way. Most are run as a 1+3 programme - where the 1 means a one year MRes, involving some formal courses but including a number of short varied research projects, followed by the doctoral project (+3) itself.

Why are they so attractive? CDTs are focused around specific research themes, of course, but the key innovations are to admit and train the candidates (Eurodoc, the organisation representing doctoral candidates in Europe, is keen that we call them 'candidates' not 'students', whatever their employment status) as a cohort from the start.

This new model for doctoral training is helping us keep ahead of the game and continue to attract the finest minds from the UK, the European Union and from the rest of the world.

Professor David Bogle

This has a number of advantages: participants are exposed to a number of research areas allowing them to make a more informed decision about their project; it allows us to plan a set of training activities for the whole cohort; it ensures that there is a pool of willing trained supervisors in the topics to be explored; it allows us to monitor the progress of the cohort in a consistent and comparable way; and, perhaps most significantly, it ensures that they are immediately plugged into a network of researchers who have interests in common.

The big concern of doctoral candidates, both potential and current, is isolation. The concern of employers has been that the training has been inconsistent and some come out the end with fantastic expert knowledge and skills but without many of the skills researchers need in the academic or the non-academic workplace. The CDT structure solves these problems.

The other big change has been the growth of skills development programmes. These give doctoral candidates opportunities throughout their doctoral programme for guidance and development on a range of transferable research skills they need for their projects and for their future careers.

At UCL the programme has over 700 events, with 12,000 individual registrations.  A key element is that candidates are able to choose their own activities on the basis of a self-assessment process using VITAE's Researcher Development Framework.

By putting them in the driving seat of their own personal development, we are helping to train them to be independent research professionals. The programme also helps them build networks with researchers in other disciplines (promoting cross-disciplinary interactions is a core element of the UCL Research Strategy) by working with them on developing generic research skills.

This new model for doctoral training is helping us keep ahead of the game and continue to attract the finest minds from the UK, the European Union and from the rest of the world.  

There is no doubt the UK is a very attractive destination for doctoral candidates, due to factors including research excellence, English language, the degree of independence given to doctoral candidates, and innovation in our delivery. (However we are not the best: according to the EU's Innovation Scoreboard we come behind Switzerland and France in terms of the percentage of non-EU doctoral students.) 

Should all doctorates be done in CDTs? Some experienced and self-contained candidates may wish to pursue their work without cohort based training and may have plenty of research experience and training before they start, so there does need to be some flexibility.

We also need to ensure that these structures are flexible enough to allow doctoral candidates and their supervisors to explore the most exciting new ideas at the boundaries of disciplines and beyond current fashions.

But it is clear to us that research training is strengthened by being part of a cohort, through a more professional approach to personal development, and opportunities for exploring interdisciplinary networks. Let the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills bring on more of them!

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