Is DTC the new PhD?

Doctoral Training Centres, or DTCs, are a new trend in UK doctoral training and are an alternative option to the traditional PhDs. Simon Hutchinson investigates.

Doctoral Training Centres offer an alternative to the traditional PhD programme in the UK in the form of themed doctoral training in groups. At the beginning of the DTC’s existence, the centres aimed to host studies across various disciplines, but in 2008 the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)  invested £250 million for 44 new centres and revamped their ideals. Today a DTC is not only defined by interdisciplinary learning, but also by it’s impact.

The impact of science is measured in a variety of ways. There is the obvious impact of science in technology and applying developed technologies, but the impact of science is also measured by how it affects culture in society. For example, there is serious social appreciation for images procured from satellites in space. This notion of impact is important as one of the main sources of funding for scientific research in the UK is from the government. The public holds great interest as to where funding goes, especially in our current economical climate. A government funded programme must be justified in the eyes of the public, and gone are the days where money is thrown at research for research’s sake. So, how is the new DTC programme justified?

Firstly, it is important to compare a PhD to a DTC programme. A traditional PhD in the UK typically lasts three years whereas a DTC programme lasts four years. The extra year in the DTC is roughly equivalent to an MSci and allows time for exploration before deciding on a project. Students are generally funded for their entire degree, but the DTC programme receives extra funding – not given directly to the student, but to the training centre itself. “DTC allows professors to do something they always wanted to do, but previously didn’t have the resources to do – they get some relief from undergraduate teaching duties so that they have the time to develop tailor made graduate courses”, says Professor Daniel Segal, DTC co-Director at Imperial College London. The additional funding also allows extra training, such as public relation skills and other transferable skills.

An interesting comparison is that of a PhD in the USA and the UK. Traditionally a PhD in the USA lasts between 4 and 6 years (sometimes longer) and a student can usually find funding for their entire study and research. Obviously, this leads to a thorough and broad understanding of their topic field. The new DTC programmes are modelled closer to the style of US doctoral degrees.

So how many students are there studying in a DTC programme compared to the normal PhD programme? There are seven research councils in the UK, but as a sampling, the EPSRC funds 9800 students of which about 46% are Doctoral Training Grant students (those in traditional PhD programmes). The next largest group is comprised of project students on research grants which make up about 29%. The original doctoral training centres account for about 9% of the portfolio and the new centres for doctoral training account for about 3% of the funding portfolio. This is to increase over the next few years as the number of DTC students increase.

How might DTCs change the way a doctoral degree is done? Jassel Majevadia, who is part of the first group of students in the new DTC programme at Imperial College, says “DTCs allow for much broader training at the doctoral level. This is much more adaptable to the working world than a PhD in a very specific field of study where only one technique is studied in great detail. DTCs require that students are aware of as broad a range of techniques, programmes, and fields of study as possible – which makes them more useful when entering real research where in this day and age breadth is valued over depth.”

Are there any disadvantages to the new DTC programme? One concern of Professor Segal is “jealousy or envy from PhD students of those in a DTC programme.” He is worried that they might appear to be getting more support than those in the PhD programme. Though at Imperial College, students in a PhD programme can take courses in the DTC programme too which relieves some of that potential tension. Also, another disadvantage to the DTC programme is that there are topics that don’t fit easily into a DTC programme and while it would be possible to mould some to fit, it would be silly to think that all new ideas would fit. Not all PhDs will be able to be taught in a DTC as DTCs are thematic and there may not be centres for every idea – and this is where the traditional PhD comes in.

I think that the revamped system and funding for the DTCs is an important step in the right direction. There is a lot more to a PhD than straight research, and the new DTC programmes are useful for providing a well-rounded education at the doctoral level. It will be interesting to see how they evolve and integrate into the current system.

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Simon Hutchinson

Simon is a PhD student at Imperial College, London, in the Quantum Optics & Laser Science group. He grew up in Massachusetts, USA and obtained his BSc in Physics from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is enthusiastic about teaching, writing and any other form of sharing information.

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