Achieving optimal results: Combining PhD study with business training

Credit: Pixabay, intographics, CC0

At the University’s Learning and Teaching Conference in June, Jean O’Donoghue and Colin Campbell (School of Chemistry) and Fumi Kitagawa (Edinburgh Business School), presented a ‘Did you know?’ talk on their innovative Centre for Doctoral Training, which prepares students for careers beyond academia. In this post, Colin looks to his conscience to help him explain why an integrated approach to doctoral training is so important for today’s graduates…

When asked to write a blog about OPTIMA*, an EPSRC and MRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training between the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde, I went out for a run to think about what I could say. My conscience gave me a bit of a grilling. The following is a transcript of our conversation:

What was your experience of postgraduate training?

When I started my PhD, my supervisor took me to the door of the lab, removed his pipe from between his teeth, and – using it to point at the drawer in the far corner of the lab – told me “That’s where you’ll find the manuals for all of the instruments”.

You liar! That didn’t happen to you! Jim Rusling (your postdoc supervisor) told you that story!

Ok, so I’m using some poetic license, but my point is that in the 20th Century training wasn’t given top billing in the PhD experience, it was more of an apprenticeship model with a lot of “on the job” learning: good training for working in an academic lab, but not necessarily for careers beyond it.

Why should we worry about training people for careers outside academia? Surely we want to churn out lots of little “mini-me’s” to become the academics of the future?

Not really… The stats for that type of model don’t look good. Only about 4% of PhD students end up in a tenured academic career. We should be training all of our students to excel in their chosen career, have a greater awareness of what that career could be, and put them in the position to proactively define their career after graduation. You could call it responsible education!

Oooooh, that sounds lofty, how do you do that? [sarcastically]

Well, over a four-year PhD, we deliver a year’s worth of training in innovation and entrepreneurship in parallel to the students’ research projects.

But you don’t know anything about innovation and entrepreneurship!

Well, putting your personal barbs to one side… we deliver our training in partnership with the Business School and our commercial partners. Getting training and feedback from people who do know about innovation and entrepreneurship is much more meaningful for our students.

So what, you think all of your students are going to become Richard Bransons or James Dysons?

Em, no… actually 78% of our students are female, so I think the role models that you might be looking for are perhaps Sheryl Sandberg, Jennifer Doudna or Patricia Bath. Besides, starting your own company is just one way of turning creative thinking into economic impact – some students might become innovators in large companies, some might work in IP law, some could run venture capital funds and a small percentage may become academics.

Pffff! How do you know that they won’t all end up working at Starbucks or McDonalds?

Well, the best evidence that we have at the moment comes from a showcase event that we put on last year to hear the stories of our first cohort of 3rd year students when they came back from their non-academic placement. 90% of them had job offers, all of them had a positive impact on their hosts’ businesses – I had a proper lump in my throat.

Are you crying now?

No, I just got a midgy in my eye.

So what‘s in the future for OPTIMA?

We’re trying to get the successor of OPTIMA funded. The proposal was due at the end of July and we’ll find out whether we’ve been successful in December.

Good luck. Race you to the top of the hill?

Funny … .

@§#*! I forgot to start STRAVA!

*OPTIMA is an EPSRC and MRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training between the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde. All students carry out an interdisciplinary project between supervisors in physical sciences and biomedical/clinical sciences. OPTIMA established the first PhD with Integrated Study program that delivers a year’s worth of formally assessed training in parallel to research.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is Director of OPTIMA and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry. He has worked in industry and academia and works at the interface between chemistry and biomedicine. He is a Fulbright Award Recipient for 2018-19 and will spend some of his time working on exchange of best practice in postgraduate teaching at the Biofrontiers Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

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