Some people are ambivalent about doing a Ph.D. They have scholarly ambitions, but they want to enter the workforce after their undergraduate degree, or perhaps they are already making their mark in the workplace. They may also have practical interests and fear that a Ph.D. will have little relevance to the applied work they intend to do and won't help them much in their future job hunts.

Fortunately, an alternative is available in the United Kingdom. Professional doctorates work very well for people with on-the-job experience, and their vocational emphasis suits the practical-minded. In contrast to the Ph.D., which generally aims to expand academic knowledge, "professional doctorates increase the knowledge about the practice of a profession," says Stuart Powell of the University of Hertfordshire. "I thought about doing a Ph.D.," adds Eng.D. candidate Rob Cross, "but I liked the more hands-on aspect of the Eng.D., the industrial links, and the management courses in the taught element."


Rob Cross

The most established professional doctorate in a science and engineering discipline is the Eng.D.: the professional doctorate in engineering. Like other professional doctorates, Eng.D.s combine an applied research project, usually in industry, with courses that are directly relevant to the candidate's profession. Career opportunities for Eng.D. graduates are good, and quite broad.

The Eng.D. isn't a perfect solution, however. Eng.D. candidates must learn to manage the expectations of two cultures, academic and industrial. Another problem is that, as a fairly new degree, the Eng.D. may not be recognized and honoured everywhere, especially outside the United Kingdom.

The Eng.D. in a nutshell

The Eng.D. was created in 1992 by the United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in response to a 1991 report [1] on post-graduate education that called for more applied and commercially relevant doctoral research. The report found that many Ph.D. graduates lack the management and business skills that employers needed--another shortcoming of traditional post-graduate education that the Eng.D. was designed to address.

Eng.D. programmes last 4 years. Usually, candidates combine classes and research during the first two, spending about 70% of their time working with the industrial partner.

Candidates get an annual stipend of £13,800 from EPSRC, with a top-up from their industrial partner of at least £3000 a year, all tax-free. "The money is a very good benefit of the scheme," says Dave Penney, an Eng.D. candidate at Swansea University in Wales. "I wouldn't have been able to afford to do it otherwise." Candidates with children get extra help--around £1500 annually per child--according to Cross, a father of three.

Getting an Eng.D. Position

Universities offering Eng.D. positions usually advertise annually, on their centre Web sites, and candidates compete for a set number of EPSRC stipends. When recruiting, candidates usually face academic as well as company interviews; some companies, such as Rolls-Royce and the steel company Corus, put candidates through a similar interview process as applicants to their graduate scheme.

"Typically, less than 50% of applicants get through the process to our scheme," says Paul Bowen of the University of Birmingham Eng.D. centre, which collaborates with Rolls-Royce. "We look for self-starters, initiative, and good communicators," says Tony Jones, Eng.D. industry coordinator at Corus. "We look for maturity and independence," adds Chimay Anumba, director of Loughborough University's Eng.D. Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Engineering. "In many cases, the candidate has to drive the project and manage the expectations of both industry and academia."

Candidates also have to meet the minimum academic requirements needed for a Ph.D.--an upper second class degree in a relevant discipline, such as engineering or materials science.

Currently, 23 Eng.D. programmes exist in the United Kingdom, all run by universities in collaboration with industrial partners. The programmes draw talent from among university students and industry employees, who take a secondment--a temporary break from regular work--while pursuing their degrees. Eng.D. students who were already employed typically keep their salary and benefits (such as pension payments); the EPSRC reimburses companies for the time employees spend taking classes.

A different research objective

The biggest difference between an Eng.D. and a traditional Ph.D is that the research is much more applied. Projects tackle industrial issues with the hope that the results can be implemented quickly so that they can benefit the company economically. "The project has to be important for [industry] to fund it, and the [Eng.D. student] is an important technical resource," says Paul Bowen, director of the Materials Eng.D. Centre at the University of Birmingham, which collaborates closely with Rolls-Royce. "While Ph.D.s are often focussed on next-generation projects, which can be more theoretical and have applications 5 to 10 years away, Eng.D.s are more often focussed on current research projects," says Neil Glover of Rolls-Royce. The Ph.D. and the Eng.D. degrees, he notes, have different but complementary goals.


Sarah Bowden

Sarah Bowden, an Eng.D. graduate who works for the engineering and consultancy firm Arup is a case in point. Bowden's project focussed on using mobile computer technology to deliver and collect information from the workforce on construction sites. "It is very satisfying, as what you are doing is applied almost straightaway," she says.

Taught elements

Research is a key component of the Eng.D., as it is in Ph.D. programmes. But the second element--the taught component--isn't often found in Ph.D. programmes in the United Kingdom. Candidates at Swansea's Eng.D. centre, for example, take courses on steelmaking and processing taught by Swansea's academic faculty and by staff from the steel company Corus, an industrial partner. They also take courses in nontechnical subjects such as project management, financial planning, employee relations, and health and safety; such technical management courses are hallmarks of Eng.D. programmes across the United Kingdom.

Other Professional Doctorates

In the U.K., there are now 192 professional doctoral programmes, and the majority are offered in subject areas such as health, education, and psychology. Unlike a one-name-fits-all Ph.D., professional doctorates confer many titles. In the U.K., the five most common qualifications are Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), Eng.D. (Doctor of Engineering), D.Clin.Psy. (Doctor of Clinical Psychology--the only professional doctorate that is a licence to practice), M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), and the D.B.A (Doctor of Business Administration). Together, these degrees comprise about 62% of the professional doctoral awards made each year in the United Kingdom. Most professional doctorates require 2 to 3 years of on-the-job experience before entering the programme.

The range of doctoral programmes in the United Kingdom is wide and widening: 109 professional-doctorate programmes were registered in 1998; that number reached 192 by 2005, with much of the growth occurring in health, business, and education. A survey of U.K. professional doctorate programs conducted last year by Stuart Powell and Elizabeth Long of the University of Hertfordshire counted approximately 7000 students registered in professional doctoral programmes, which is just over 1% of the total number U.K. postgraduate students.

A mix of skills

This hybrid academic-professional mix can offer Eng.D. candidates the best of both worlds. Bowden, who worked as an engineer at Arup for several years before signing up for an Eng.D. in conjunction with Loughborough University, says her Eng.D. training taught her how to search the scientific literature for the best methods of professional practice. That skill, she says, combined with the planning and report-writing skills she honed at Loughborough, have proved very useful--"practically applying academic rigour," as she puts it, to solve real-world problems. Eng.D. candidates also learn to communicate with colleagues working in different aspects of the business, explaining the relevance of their research to workers on the frontline, says Dave Worsley, Swansea's Eng.D. coordinator: "You have to be able to talk to the guy turning the spanner [and] to the senior manager in control of the budget."

Career opportunities

After graduation, many Eng.D. graduates are offered positions at the companies where they trained. "Around 60% of Eng.D. candidates" who work for their degree at Corus "get their first job with us," says Tony Jones, Eng.D. industry coordinator at Corus. "The Eng.D. enables the student to gain a core technical [specialization] and a deeper understanding of a particular field through their own research," comments Glover of Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce's Eng.D. candidates enter the company at a level similar to someone "4 years down the graduate track," both in terms of salary and professional grade, Glover adds. Upon completion, Eng.D. graduates are likely to go down a career path as a technical specialist or technical manager, although the general management route is not closed to them.


Esther Obonyo

Not a one-way ticket into industry

Statistics from Swansea University's Eng.D. programme show that over the last decade, 74% of Swansea's Eng.D. graduates have obtained jobs in industry. But what's surprising is that 22% have taken academic-research jobs, many working on research projects related to their Eng.D. research. Esther Obonyo, a graduate of Loughborough University's Eng.D. programme, is now working as an assistant professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville. After completing her Eng.D., Obonyo worked in the construction sector for 2 years before applying for her current job because she wanted to teach. The university was looking for a candidate with industrial experience, so her Eng.D. and work experience fit the bill. Obonyo is continuing her research into the use of information-technology systems in the construction industry. She is also teaching. "The Eng.D. gave me flexibility," she says.

Eng.D. challenges

One of the challenges faced by candidates--especially seconded employees--is juggling Eng.D. work with the short-term needs of a company. Seconded employees, for example, may be expected to continue work not related to their Eng.D. research. "You are in the middle, and you have to negotiate with your supervisors at work and your line manager," says Bowden, noting that such experiences have taught her to satisfy different people's sometimes conflicting objectives. Another challenge, says the University of Birmingham's Bowen, is that candidates sometimes get stuck in conflicts between the academic needs of the project and the day-to-day needs of industry. But, he adds, managing these conflicts is an important lesson for the candidates.

Quality

Eng.D. degrees are expected to have the same scientific depth as Ph.D.s, but they must have an industrial impact as well as an academic one. A potential downside, says Bowen, is that a candidate can end up pursuing many different projects so that the thesis can end up looking like a "patchwork quilt." Eng.D.s work best, he says, if the candidate is based in a fairly large company with plenty of research staff and a good support structure, and when all the projects have a central thread.

Just like their fellow Ph.D. students, Eng.D. candidates write papers for peer-reviewed journals, and work is typically written up in a thesis, which is subjected to the same kind of academic scrutiny as a Ph.D. thesis. If they don't make the grade, "they don't get an Eng.D.," says Swansea University's Worsley.


Laura Baker

Recognition

Recognition of the qualification can be an issue for some graduates, especially those employed outside the United Kingdom. "A disadvantage is that the Eng.D. is not as well known as the Ph.D.," says Penney. This problem extends to other professional doctorates too, adds the University of Hertfordshire's Powell. Employers and universities outside the United Kingdom often don't know about the degree, so they can be confused about what the qualifications mean, he says.

Rewards

Because candidates are trained precisely to fit a company's needs, Eng.D. degrees guarantee that candidates' training will be marketable, at least locally and in the short term. And because so much of the training takes place on site, Eng.D. graduates are left with few illusions about the nature of industrial work. "By doing an Eng.D., you really get to learn about what a company is like from the inside before you decide to take the plunge and work for them," says Corus's Laura Baker. Eng.D. graduates, says Baker, are in a better position than many others to try their hands at a different aspect of the business, moving out of their "comfort zone," as she puts it. The flexibility of the Eng.D., combined with knowledge about a company, gives new employees opportunities to try new things, says Noel Hopkins of Rolls-Royce: "You can make of it what you want."

Check out the EPSRC's Web site for information on the Eng.D. scheme and for links to U.K. Eng.D. centres.

References:

[1] Science and Engineering Research Council, The Engineering Doctorate, An SERC working party report (Swindon, SERC, 1991). [Not available online]

Laura Blackburn is an intern in Science's News department.

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