The Best of Both Worlds--Engineering Doctorates

Many scientists reach a point in their career at which they feel torn between academic and industrial research--and the varying degrees of freedom, job security, and funding that go with each. But even if you decide at an early stage that the industrial environment is the one for you, you may still be faced with a dilemma. Do you cling to academic life just long enough to get your PhD, or do you make the plunge straight into a graduate training scheme, getting first-hand experience and a decent salary into the bargain? Well, an engineering doctorate could offer the best of both worlds.

The engineering doctorate ( EngD) was created for engineers who want a managerial career in industry. Thus EngD students, who are referred to as research engineers, graduate with nothing less than a doctorate, industrial experience, and management training. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ( EPSRC) has been funding the programme since 1992 in 15 host centres across the UK, each with a different engineering specialisation.

The EngD is a four-year course, comprising approximately 25% coursework and 75% industrial project work. "You can think of it as an industrial version of a PhD," says Duncan Hand, director of the Photonics Engineering Doctorate Centre ( PEDC), a joint project between Heriot-Watt, Strathclyde, and St Andrews universities in Scotland that was set up in October 2001.

The teaching at the PEDC, for example, includes modules on specialist photonic and optoelectronic topics, as well as some business courses borrowed from the Edinburgh Business School MBA. To a certain extent students can tailor these modules to their needs; for example, the proportion of study that looks at business management techniques can vary from between a quarter to a half of the total coursework.

The technical courses students take are those that relate most closely to their individual research. The "big requirement is for [the students] to do one piece of coursework at the start of the first year, for five months," says Hand, followed by shorter pieces of work throughout the rest of the EngD. The students then carry out most of their research and development work on a project in an industrial setting. "All three universities are involved in providing supervision for projects," says Hand, working in conjunction with each student's industrial supervisor.

There are two categories of EngD students at the PEDC: full-time students, and company employees. The full-time students have full funding, which means that on top of having their fees paid, they receive a stipend of approximately £13,500 per annum tax-free. Company employees continue to receive their salary, with the EPSRC compensating the company for any time the employee must take off for academic studies, as well as any additional costs incurred by the company in the course of the students' research.

Despite this, the period of full-time study in the first year is "clearly a problem for most companies," Hand concedes, but he goes on to explain that "we are, however, developing our courses in a distance-learning format." This will allow employees who can't take the full five months away from their lab to work at their own pace, for example taking one day a week off work. The centre hopes to have this system fully in place soon so that, if necessary, it would be possible for students to take the whole course without going onto campus.

Each year, 10 new studentships are available at the PEDC. Applicants for this programme will usually have just finished their first degree or be more mature applicants who have worked in industry. "The kind of people we're looking for are mainly from physics and electronic engineering backgrounds," says Hand, who explains that the desire for applicants of mixed backgrounds is a result of the subject matter. As Hand describes it, "photonics is at the crossover between physics and engineering." Specifically, all applicants are expected to have at least an upper second class BSc, MPhys, or MSci in physics or applied physics, a BEng or MEng in electronic or mechanical engineering, or a similar qualification. Due to the nature of this course, "the companies are very much involved in the recruitment process," Hand says.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all of this year's places have been filled. "We've had a good number [of applications], but not enough of really high quality," says Hand. "We're all quite fussy in terms of [which] students we take on, as [the course] is quite demanding and we want to be sure of people getting through."

One of the problems the PEDC faces in attracting high-quality applicants "is telling people about what it is," says Hand. On one hand the qualification may not immediately appeal to physics graduates, being a doctorate of engineering. On the other, electronic engineering graduates may be put off by the fact that the centre started life as a physics department, while the majority of the other engineering doctorate centres are run by engineering departments. Hand says that the centre is, however, "no longer really a department of physics; we're now reorganising into a school of engineering and physical science."

So if you want to get ahead in industry, and get yourself a useful qualification at the same time, the opportunity is still available. A specific deadline has not yet been set for this year's applications, but it is likely to be end of August; Hand strongly suggests getting applications in by the middle of the month.

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