Graduate school may prepare students fairly well for a career in academia, but it's not great training for the jobs at private companies that at least 75% of all graduate students eventually take. To address this problem, the United Kingdom's Research Councils send graduate students to camp. For one intensive week, the grad students engage in game-playing activities designed to hone marketable skills.

More than 30 years ago, the U.K. government recognised that new Ph.D.s were heading into the job market without several vital skills, such as knowing how to communicate effectively with co-workers or work as part of a team. What's more, they weren't able to sell themselves to prospective employers. In 1968, the Research Councils founded the Graduate Schools Programme, which sends second- and third-year graduate students funded by the councils to a conference center in another part of the country for a solid week of intensive game-playing.

The program isn't all fun, although it has plenty of games The role-playing games lock students into mock business dilemmas. At the start of a course, the roughly 90 attendees are divided into 10-person teams that work together for the entire week. In one game, students invent a small business, design its business plan, and nurture it through the first year in a mock economy. Other games require cutting millions from a budget or saving a model firm from bankruptcy. Developing teamwork is one of the program's main goals, says program coordinator Janet Metcalfe, and the intensive tasks require more work than any one person can do.

The second goal, she says, is for each student to understand his or her strengths and weaknesses. "It's a time for them to take stock of the skills they've got, so they can learn how to sell them to potential employers," Metcalfe says. "Working so closely with your team means you quickly establish what each person's strong points are," says Alan Hart, who attended the program while a graduate student at Cambridge University.

The course leaders, many of whom are young managers from the business world, give lectures and review sessions throughout the week, as well as practical advice on how to beef up a CV, shine in an interview, or dig up job openings. Sessions typically begin before 9 a.m. and don't finish until 9 in the evening. "You are thrown into an amazing eat-work-eat-work-eat-work-drink-sleep cycle with no respite whatsoever," says Hart. The Research Councils' Graduate Schools Programme is open to any postgraduate student, but only students whose research is already funded by the Research Council can attend for free. Others must pay a £450 tuition fee, about U.S$732. Twenty courses are planned for 2000 at locations all over the United Kingdom. Most are multidisciplinary, but others are specially designed for engineering or social science students.

Some graduates of the program reported in a survey that they emerged more focused on their graduate work, in part because they had improved their time-management skills, and also because they were more enthusiastic about what lay ahead--whether in academia or the business world. But regardless of their final career choice, Mark Hylton, the program's managing agent, says, "We want Ph.D.s to improve their employability, thereby helping them to achieve their potential."