Structured PhDs – Let’s get it right

This time last year I wrote about the structured PhD and tried to present a rationale for why it had become not only a ‘nice to do’ but a ‘have to do’. Structured PhDs are here to stay and there is not much anyone can do about it even if they wanted to. (I’m OK with the concept by the way.)

The idea behind the structured PhD is that PhD students ought to do some taught modules in addition to their core research ‘job’. There are two kinds of modules that have emerged:

  • Specialist modules that are of direct relevance to the student’s own PhD projects
  • Generic modules that aim to provide PhD students with a wide range of skills – skills that will make them more ready for the commercial world, or skills that will prepare them for the long slog towards becoming an independent researcher or  academic.

Doing advanced modules in your discipline, especially in subjects directly related to your project, is the norm in the US. Firstly, it is reckoned that a PhD graduate should have a deeper knowledge of the core subjects of their discipline than someone with a bachelor’s degree. Secondly, it is recognised that to make the leap from undergraduate level to cutting-edge research, one really needs to undertake further education and training. It is not presumed that this leap, which is often enormous, can be made by learning ‘on the job’ only. All of this is eminently sensible in my view even if it makes the PhD process somewhat longer.

The generic modules are really a response to three things:

–          Repeated calls from business and industry for PhD students (who are supposed to be the ‘best and the brightest’ on average) to be more ‘industry ready’. Modules on ‘Entrepreneurship’ or ‘Industrial R&D’ or ‘Intellectual Property’ or ’Leadership’ would fall into this category

–          The likelihood that the problems we are seeing at undergraduate level (poor writing skills for example) have percolated up to PhD level. A typical module driven by this trend would be one on, say, ‘Scientific Writing’ or ‘Writing your Thesis’.

–          The realisation that the academic career is a fiercely competitive one and PhD graduates need to be prepared for that if they want to stay in research. I’m thinking here about modules in topics like ‘Grant Writing’, ‘Research Ethics’ and even ‘Intellectual Property’ again.

It is very hard to make any sort meaningful argument against any of this expect perhaps to state the obvious fact that time spent on doing modules is time spent away from research. That has cost implications.

But given that structured PhDs are here to stay, how should we go about organising them? I think it is ironic that at a time when the Minister and the HEA are obsessing about duplication in the Third Level sector, we are embarking on a new era of Fourth Level with no real plan. It seems to me that each department or school is just ‘shooting off’ and making it up as they go along. This is guaranteed to lead to duplication and inconsistency in standards, especially when it comes to the generic modules.

We need to get this right and not have some Minister talking about clusters and mergers and critical masses ten years from now. For a start, I would set up an Institute for Fourth Level Education. This Institute, which would only require a few good people (I’m not talking about armies of administrators),  would organise the delivery of all ‘generic’ modules. What’s the point in all six third level institutions in Dublin running modules in Scientific Writing, for example? In time it might even make sense to have a more coordinated approach to specialist modules as well because PhD numbers are always likely to be relatively small and achieving sustainable class sizes will always be an issue.

The Agri-Food Graduate Development Programme*, a collaboration between UCD, UCC and Teagasc, is a good example of this type of approach. In the last 7 years, they have delivered 34 modules on 15 distinct topics to over 840 postgraduate students. They have established a network of high quality speakers including academics, industrialists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, communication specialists etc. They have led the way and we need to learn from them and similar programmes if they exist. I fear, though, that we will all head off in different directions, adding to our own workloads in the process, with no real vision as to what we are trying to do, and ultimately, not really providing students with the best modules available.


*Declaration of interest: I am married to Julie Dowsett, UCD coordinator for this programme. She kindly supplied me with the data!


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Structured PhDs – Let’s get it right

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Structured PhDs – Let’s get it right

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