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U.K. Gives Doctoral Science Students A $1.3 Billion Boost

Alternative approach could be better for industry and provide Ph.D. graduates with enhanced job prospects

by Alex Scott
February 17, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 7


Faced with a potential shortage of postgraduate researchers in industry-focused scientific fields, the U.K. is embarking on a Ph.D. training revolution. It is introducing a series of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs). Unlike traditional Ph.D. studies in the U.K. in which students train in an apprentice-style role with a mentor, students in CDTs attend classes in addition to conducting research.

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The $1.3 Billion Doctoral Boost

Over the next five years, the U.K. government will invest $642 million to train more than 4,000 doctoral science and engineering students at CDTs, with 1,000 industry partners adding a further $616 million. The almost $1.3 billion initiative will support 91 CDTs, arranged by subject matter at 24 universities. The initiative follows the rollout in 2008 of 40 CDTs that were supported by government funding of about $400 million.

Students in the U.K. will still have the option of choosing the traditional apprenticed-to-a-supervisor path to a doctorate. The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the public body funding the initiative, will continue to direct more than half of its funding toward the traditional Ph.D. route in the short run.

This is a photo of CDT Ph.D. students at Bristol University in lab.
Credit: Bristol U
Bristol’s CDT students take on a range of training activities to become chemists.

Topics of study in CDTs vary. They include starting up a business, bioethics, intellectual property and patent law, and brainstorming sessions. Typically, students also are offered a placement within industry. The companies sponsoring the centers offer potential research topics and put forward experts to give lectures.

“These new centers will give the country the highly trained scientists and engineers it needs, and they will be equipped with skills to move on in their careers,” says Paul Golby, chair of EPSRC.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that the centers can achieve these goals while maintaining a high quality of science. “The chemical sciences community has voiced several concerns about CDTs,” says Jim Iley, executive director of science and education for the Royal Society of Chemistry. For instance, only a small number of CDTs are focused on key areas of the discipline, such as analytical chemistry and synthesis, he says.

Iley is also concerned that some areas of study that have an important place in chemistry are not securing CDT status because they don’t feature a critical mass of researchers. Iley would also like to see more information about the potential impact of CDTs on the hiring strategies of university departments.

One thing that doesn’t appear to be causing concern among academics is the greater influence that industry will have in CDTs on the direction of students’ research. The Council for the Defence of British Universities says it has not considered whether industry’s greater influence within CDTs is a problem for academia. Many academics across U.K. universities, meanwhile, consider that the centers will add to academic quality while providing better job prospects for CDT graduates.

“I don’t think it is a problem,” says Christopher J. Moody, a professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham. In the fall, the university will open the doors of its Sustainable Chemistry Centre, a CDT led by the chemistry department, but it also features the departments of chemical engineering, food science, and business.

Traditional Ph.D. students have three years to complete their studies, whereas CDT participants will have four years. “This is plenty of time for excellent science and then adding to it. We are not diluting it,” Moody says.

Life sciences firms are revamping apprenticeships in the U.K., but candidates may be enticed by opportunities in Germany. Read more at

Nottingham plans to have 14 CDT enrollees starting in October, adding to its typical annual class of about 50 chemistry students taking a traditional Ph.D. route. Its CDT is partnering with companies that produce pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals such as paints and coatings, and foodstuffs.

Moody’s confidence that CDTs will provide a positive experience is echoed by academics in other parts of Europe. “It’s part of a larger trend, with similar activity already under way in France, Germany, and in Scandinavian countries,” says Thomas Jørgensen, head of the Council for Doctoral Education at the European University Association in Brussels. “Pooling of university resources—even across national borders—can create a critical mass of research that benefits all academic partners.”

The CDT approach can be particularly useful in specialized fields of chemistry where universities can share expertise and infrastructure, Jørgensen says. “It’s not good to be all alone in an institution where there is not enough research in your field to really develop.”

Classes taught to cohorts of students in CDTs also provide training in transferable skills, Jørgensen says. But he dismisses any concerns that a cohort approach coupled with industry funding will undermine the academic integrity of doctorates.

His conclusions tally with the experiences at Bristol University’s Chemical Synthesis Centre, a CDT that opened in 2009. There, the involvement of sponsor companies provides the students with additional—not reduced—research options, says Kevin Booker-Milburn, a professor of organic chemistry at the university and director of the center.

Indications are that CDT students excel academically and benefit from a broader-based curriculum, which is being made available to those studying for a traditionally structured Ph.D., Booker-Milburn says. CDT students undergo seven months of instruction about different aspects of chemistry before they choose a research topic. During that period, research proposal brainstorming sessions with staff enable students to make a more informed choice about their field of research, he says.

Early cohorts of Bristol’s CDT, featuring about 14 students per year, are in the final phase of their studies. They have published almost 40 scientific papers among them.

Another advantage is that the Bristol CDT has gained accreditation from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which means that the students can become chartered chemists. Such achievements gained during doctoral training are proving to be an advantage for employment.

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Of the center’s students from the 2009 cohort, many have secured jobs in industry or academia, Booker-Milburn says. Bristol’s CDT is working particularly hard to establish relationships with small firms, which in light of restructuring by major pharmaceutical firms, he says, will be among the bigger employers of the future. “I would call it ‘Ph.D. plus,’ ” he says. “And to me, it’s the way to do Ph.D.s in my subject. It definitely works.”

The option of choosing a CDT studentship or a traditional doctoral approach means that “it really could be one of the best times to do a Ph.D.,” says Joe Gaunt, a business development consultant for the University of Sheffield. That center, which will open its doors for the first time in the fall, will have a cohort of 10 students. It has attracted about 35 candidates.

Gaunt is convinced that the CDT approach can yield scientists with a well-rounded outlook that will provide them with better job prospects. Training offered in Sheffield’s CDT that goes beyond what is offered by a traditional Ph.D. includes a six-month internship with the students’ industrial sponsors, a monthly seminar program led by industrial scientists, and business enterprise workshops. Another attraction for the students is that they will earn upward of $27,000 for each of their four years of study, a rate that is generally $2,000 to $3,000 higher than traditional Ph.D. training compensation.

Academics in the Sheffield CDT will pitch certain projects to students on behalf of sponsor companies in an approach reminiscent of the TV reality show “Shark Tank,” which features entrepreneurs who seek backing from venture capitalists. The sponsor companies range from start-ups to multinational firms, and their interests range from polymers in electronics to composite materials for the aerospace sector.

Other universities running CDTs have been creative too. For example, students in Durham University’s CDT for Soft Matter & Functional Interfaces—which is run in association with the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh—will benefit from a “mini-M.B.A.” from Durham Business School, among other training courses.

Although discussions between academics and government funding agencies over the future of chemistry have been tense historically, they seem to be largely aligned when it comes to CDTs, even when companies are added into the mix. Early signs are that the centers are working well. According to the CDT administrators who spoke with C&EN, there is a healthy demand for CDT training.

The real litmus test, however, will emerge in the next few months and years when the first wave of graduates from CDTs starts to look for jobs.  


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