A PhD involves not only undertaking a major research project, but also the acquisition of skills to prepare students for a future career in scientific research, industrial R&D or commerce.
Generic Research Skills Training Course
Open University research students undertake a wide range of training centred on a new Science Faculty course 'STM895 Research Skills', fully compliant with the Research Councils' Joint Skills Statement. It is web-based and has the aim of enabling students to understand the requirements of a research degree, supporting students through the various stages of the PhD process, and preparing students to continue with a scientific career in either industry or academia. The course is split into three main sections, reflecting the different phases of a PhD: Orientation, Investigation and Discourse. Throughout the course, students continually build up an on-line e-Portfolio of their work which includes a record of their attendance and performance on subject-specific training and other faculty-wide or university-wide training courses (e.g. health and safety, IT, information resources). These sections are jointly accessible by the students' supervisors, and allow the students' progress to be monitored, assessed, and validated at each stage.
All our PhD students have formal training in academic, research, and transferable skills.
University-wide training provision begins with a postgraduate induction conference followed by a training workshop. These sessions focus on the wider University context and introduce things such as the Student Counselling Service, the Statistical Advisory Service, the Library services and the Academic Computing Service. Later in the year there are time-management workshops and presentation skills workshops for the benefit of all postgraduate students in the University.
The OU Library offers a range of information management skills training, which includes generic training sessions in the use of individual information resources, and subject-specific training sessions run for faculty groups by subject librarians. Throughout the year there are also training courses organised by the IT Training Office in the Academic Computing Service which are open to all members of the University, including postgraduate students. The programme covers generic computing skills through formal courses, self-taught courses and self-paced videos and computer based training.
PhD students are required to present their work formally to other members of the department each year. In the first year presentations are made on progress on their own projects (June/July) and departmental seminars. An annual CESPAR postgraduate colloquium is held for second and third year students to present their work to a wider audience. Writing skills are developed through iteration of first month and first year progress reports. In addition, all postgrads are also expected to give at least one Journal club presentation of a paper from the literature. Time management (2 x 0.5d) and careers (1d) workshops for students are provided by the University. Some of the department's postgraduate training courses also require students to make presentations to the class.
The department encourages students to develop broader skills (as long as their research progress is good) in a number of ways. Many students become involved with local schools and societies and give general talks to non-specialist audiences as well as supporting exhibitions, both locally and nationally. Students are encouraged to participate in external courses and activities such as the STFC summer schools for new students, the UK GRAD programme and Exploring Entrepreneurship. All Open University full-time postgraduates are also entitled to register for study on any of the University's taught courses without fee liability. Since the University offers around 200 undergraduate taught courses and 100 postgraduate taught courses each year, there is plenty of scope for choice. In practice our students only occasionally take undergraduate courses, usually in areas supporting their research, or providing new skills (e.g. languages).
In addition to the formal training programme, students within DPS acquire a range of skills during the course of their projects which are of great value for future careers in industry or academic research. Examples are: the ability to work to strict deadlines (e.g. for space experiment reviews, mission launches or encounters, telescope or facility scheduling); interaction with industrial representatives; working in large international teams (many experiments involve large collaborations, both in the development and construction stages and during data and sample analysis); access to or experience of major international facilities and organisations.
Most students within the Department of Physical Sciences (DPS) become members of the professional societies dedicated to meteoritics (Meteoritical Society), Astronomy and Geophysics (The Royal Astronomical Society) or Physics (Institute of Physics). DPS students would expect to go to a minimum of two international conferences during their Ph.D. Attendance at such a conference in the first year exposes students to the wider international community during the early stages of their research. An oral or poster presentation is normally a condition for release of funds for attendance at subsequent conferences - it is expected that the students will write their own material. The peer appraisal and guidance that accompanies attendance at international meetings is a vital part of the students' training programme. Students are encouraged to seek their own funding and most attend further conferences or workshops funded from this source or research grants.
Subject specific training courses
Subject-specific Postgraduate Training Seminars are organised by the department with the research disciplines contributing sessions based on their own specialities and requirements. All sessions are open to all postgraduate students (full-time and part-time). These seminars include sessions on skills and techniques (such as computing languages or packages, numerical techniques, data and error analysis methods, instrumentation), as well as more subject-specific lectures. The latter may be in-depth reviews for those specialising in the research area or more general overviews of a field to provide sufficient background for all students to benefit from research seminars.
In addition to these postgraduate lectures, students have access to copies of any OU teaching materials, and can use these to remedy gaps in undergraduate preparation, or to underpin interdisciplinary research.