Exploring the value of engineering and physical sciences doctorates

Robotics engineering students in the lab, photo by NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe Stock


To support the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's review of their investment in doctoral education, researchers explored the skills required for doctoral graduates in the sector, and how students see doctoral education contributing to the development of these skills and to their career pathways.

What is the issue?

The UK government’s Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap emphasises a strong commitment to attracting, training and retaining diverse talent within the R&D workforce across all employment sectors. Doctoral education is a critical aspect in building this talent base, training students not just for careers in research but beyond.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funds approximately one third of all engineering and physical sciences doctoral students in the UK and has introduced novel approaches to doctoral training, such as cohort-based training. However, the evolving research landscape, alongside the need for increased investment in R&D by industry and businesses, has meant doctoral education may need to adapt further.

How did we help?

EPSRC undertook a review of their investment in doctoral education to ensure that their support remains world leading. The review involved gathering evidence from the community to inform the development of recommendations on the future of EPSRC’s support for doctoral education.

RAND Europe worked alongside Vitae to gain insight into the value of engineering and physical sciences doctoral education. This included undertaking a literature review of the available evidence on the value, skills, and career outcomes of doctoral education in the engineering and physical sciences, alongside novel approaches to doctoral education. A series of focus groups were also undertaken with EPSRC-funded doctoral researchers to explore their expectations and experiences of doctoral education.

What did we find?

From the reviewed literature we found that doctoral education in the engineering and physical sciences provides significant value and is beneficial to the individual, potential employers, and society more broadly. Doctoral graduates within the engineering and physical sciences move into a diverse range of careers, commonly within academia or industry, but also within science communication, science policy, consultancy, and not-for-profit organisations. This diverse range of careers creates a variety of skills requirements for graduates, including the need for both technical and transferable skillsets which can support them as they transition into the workplace.

Focus group participants recognised the value of the doctorate to all career choices, noting that it developed a different skillset from lower degrees. Those aspiring to an academic career were most likely to say they felt well prepared and knew what to expect. Those considering a career in industry valued the opportunity to have extensive interactions with industry and the insights these had provided in terms of what companies are looking for from employees, their working cultures and job opportunities. Participants were generally positive about their doctoral experience including supervision, training and the range of development opportunities, but noted that a stronger relationship with the EPSRC would be beneficial to build a doctoral community.

What can be done?

From the literature on doctoral provision, there are a few key areas for reflection:

  • There is a shift towards a transferable skills-based approach, and greater development of transferable skills would support doctoral students in their future careers.
  • There is a continued need for tailored programmes to support student development during doctoral education. This includes supporting graduates entering academia but also those entering industry and non-academic careers. Initiatives to support underrepresented groups were flagged as being particularly important.
  • There is a continued need for supporting doctoral students during their education including through careers advice, links between universities and private companies, and mentorship.