This month NERC (the National Environmental Research Council – the funding body behind many UK environment-related PhDs, including mine) announced it’s changing the way it allocates studentships to UK universities. Currently, universities (or research institutions) are allocated a set number of studentships each year. The new system will award ‘Doctoral Training Partnerships’ (DTPs) to either individual institutions or consortia. The same number of studentships will be offered each year (~240) and all aspects of the studentships themselves (e.g. entry requirements) will remain the same. The main difference is that the number of providers will fall, about 10-20 DTPs will be awarded, each gaining between 12-24 studentships. The range here comes from an added flexibility to account for the possibility of large consortium bids asking for more studentships than, perhaps, individual university bids. Once awarded a DTP will be in place for 5 years of new student intakes (with the first intake set for 2014). NERC studentships will still be available outside DTP locations via the current project (‘tied’) studentships linked to grants as well as via ‘Focused Studentships’ (the details of which are still to be announced).
A key idea of this move is to encourage multidisciplinary work and knowledge sharing which are important in environmental research. Both groups within departments and also departments in different universities will have to work together to gain DTP status, and it is hoped these collaborations will continue once the DTP is in place. The NERC documentation also talks about having centres of excellence and a presumed benefit is being able to focus the direct and ephemeral training associated with PhD students. Over the past decade the need to develop PhD students beyond the lab bench has been realised; modern research calls for scientists capable of effective communication skills, high computer literacy and the ability to interact with policy makers, businesses and the general public. Training in all of these areas, and more, may be provided more efficiently in centralised hubs. I imagine cost savings have also been considered.
That said, I was disappointed to read that there would be no mandatory training requirements for those gaining DTP status. Surely that should be part of the point? It’s worrying that those receiving NERC studentships via other means (i.e. those not at DTPs) may lose out on NERC support for additional training, the money and infrastructure for which has gone to DTP centres, who themselves have no formal requirements for additional training and development programmes.
DTP status has potential benefits. Forcing institutions to undergo the application process will, hopefully, result in those that gain PhD studentships fully appreciating them. A PhD student is far more than cheap labour (an outdated opinion that, unfortunately, is still held by some academics). Hopefully PhD studentships will be more valued under the new system. However, with a potentially more stringent selection process NERC should also take this opportunity to reinforce the need to ensure DTPs are producing well-rounded graduates capable of conducting cutting edge research scientific research in a rapidly changing world.
For more information on the project see here. As future PhD students are likely to be most affected by this process it’s important current students make their voices heard if they have comments or questions.