Mark Maslin and Kevin Fowler provide some advice on what to look for in a modern PhD programme.
Guest contributors Mark Maslin and Kevin Fowler
Choosing to undertake a PhD is a daunting task. This is not helped by the common misperception that studying for a PhD is a lonely struggle to prove you’re worthy of academia: a Darwinian process where only the fittest, strongest and luckiest survive.
In 2012 the Natural Environment Research Council invited proposals for a new Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) competition, for the allocation of over 240 doctoral studentships in the UK. After extensive discussion with colleagues at University College London (UCL) and eight other higher education institutions, we designed a bespoke PhD programme for environmental scientists. Having reviewed best practices around the world, we built a flexible PhD programme incorporating five key principles that could enhance the PhD experience and reflect the needs of current PhD students.
We believe that these five principles should help you to identify and undertake a PhD that will equip you with a combination of skills and tools that you will find valuable throughout your subsequent career.
Choosing your PhD project and supervisor is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your career. So you need time to see what different projects entail and to get to know your potential supervisors. In London we’re funding 35 exceptional students per year, to join our PhD programme, to do just that.
For the first three months students are trained in environmental sciences, with time set aside to meet potential supervisors and discuss projects in detail. Students are encouraged to take a lead in developing their own projects. This provides a two-way process with supervisors, and allows students to radically change their research focus before being locked into a particular PhD. It also means that students can properly judge whether they can thrive with a supervisor for the next four years.
Forget the idea that being a PhD student means you’ll end up an academic. UK research councils have realised that the majority of the PhD students they fund instead have fulfilling careers in government, NGOs, or industry.
Scientists should look for PhD programmes that include a focus on transferable and innovation skills. Early on in our training programme, we teach time management, ethics, grant writing, fieldwork planning, scientific writing, and public engagement. We also ensure that students have wide knowledge of environmental sciences beyond the narrow focus of their PhD projects.
Every PhD is unique with a distinct research focus. So students need to choose a training programme that will complement that distinctiveness. This both enhances their research and provides additional skills for that all-important post-PhD employment. Many of our students have government, business or NGO supervisors, providing insight into ‘real-world’ research, as well as essential equipment and access.
These partnerships also benefit the sponsor, as they can use the PhD project to examine a long-term research question that industrial or government sectors are not able to commit to. We also encourage students to seek three-month placements or internships beyond the academic sector to provide a deeper insight into policy making and business.
Every potential PhD student should investigate whether their PhD programme develops a close cohort of students. Peer-to-peer networking and support is an essential part of development for an early-career research scientist.
In London, our students receive cohort-wide training during their first six months, including ten days in California on a joint geology-biology field-class that they themselves design. We also encourage networking between cohorts in different years and with students in other NERC-funded DTPs through summer conferences and skills workshops. These networks are an important resource, for their support, expertise, and collaboration potential, for the rest of a scientist’s career.
Student support structures
When choosing your PhD, make sure that student support is at the heart of the programme. All of our PhDs have a supervisory team with members often based at different partner institutions, creating varied networks and structures. All universities and their departments have their own system to protect and support students, which are complemented by the activities of our office. These support structures and the strong cohort developed at the beginning of the training ensures that no student feels isolated or neglected.
PhDs are hard work, but choosing a programme that supports these five core principles will, we believe, make them a lot easier. In the end, our students will have all the skills required to survive in the big bad world, and that is what all PhDs should, in the end, should be aiming for.
Mark Maslin FRGS, is a professor of climatology and environmental sciences in the Department of Geography at University College London. He is a Royal Society industrial fellow working with Rezatec Ltd, a company he co-founded. He is also the founding director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership.
Kevin Fowler is a professor of evolutionary biology in the Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment at University College London. A former Royal Society university research fellow, he is a chair with the NERC Peer Review College, and is the deputy director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership.