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Reworked PhD model to provide mass of research talent in data sciences

SFI Centres for Research Training to fund more than 700 students over nine years

The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centres for Research Training programme is helping to meet Ireland’s future needs in information and communications technology (ICT) and digital skills through a new training model for PhD students.

"The traditional way people do a PhD in Ireland is where the student identifies a faculty member to approach or is approached by one and asked if they are interested in doing a PhD," says SFI director of Science for Society, Dr Ruth Freeman. "The faculty member then looks for funding or already has it in place and takes on the student for four years, paying them a stipend."

This is the apprenticeship model of PhD, she adds. “That’s the way it’s been done for the past 100 years, but it has been changing. It’s great to learn core skills but students also need to enhance their skills in other areas.”

That’s where the Centres for Research Training come in. “We sat down a few years ago and said there needs to be a better way to make it work,” says Freeman.

"We set out to create the most exceptional PhD programme anywhere that will attract students from overseas as well as from Ireland. We wanted to make the experience so good that students would want to come back and do a second PhD when they were finished. We decided that the first programme would focus on ICT because that was the area of most need."

Instead of the old one-to-one model, PhD students are recruited in cohorts each year by six SFI-funded centres around the State.

“The centres cover a broad area within ICT, everything from AI [artificial intelligence] to genomics and bioinformatics. Each centre was set up by a group of academics who want to focus on a specific area.

“We now have a large group of principal investigators recruiting an incredibly bright group of students. Each year they advertise for a new intake of PhD students and get a huge number of applications. It’s very competitive.”

The training is very different. “From day one, the students have a group of colleagues around them,” Freeman says. “They get an opportunity to look at different research labs and might do stints in a number of them before deciding on the area of research they want to pursue.

“There are also a number of other programmes like training in things including research integrity, communications and so on. All these things are integrated in the programme; they are not add-ons.”

Diversity and inclusion

Launched in March 2019, the €100 million programme will fund more than 700 students over nine years in four cohorts.

“The centres have already recruited over 300 students,” says Freeman. “Diversity and inclusion is a very important aspect of the programme. It’s hard to get that when you have one person taking on one student. The centres allow for that. We have more than 40 per cent female students in the centres. That’s very impressive in the data sciences area.

“The other thing we wanted to bring in was collaboration outside of academia,” she continues. “We have almost 200 collaborative relationships already. Students will usually get an opportunity of a placement with a partner.

“That means if they want to work in industry or in the public service after qualifying, they can get experience of it in advance. That’s of benefit for employers as well.”

The overall aim of the programme is to provide Ireland with a critical mass of research talent in data sciences.

“If this works well, we won’t just have one wave of PhDs coming through. Just like other parts of the education system where every year you have a new wave of doctors, architects and engineers coming through, this will give us new waves of PhDs coming through year after year. You can’t really do that when you effectively have a collection of sole traders out there looking for funding for PhD students.”

And SFI has ambitions to grow and evolve the programme. “We definitely want to do more. It really is a critical part of what Ireland needs to be doing to remain competitive globally,” Freeman says.

“A key pillar of our new strategy is a focus on future skills to support the development of the world’s most sought-after skilled workforce here in Ireland. This will ensure that, as a nation, we will be well-placed to respond to future opportunities or our next challenge.

“In future, the Centres for Research Training programme may be expanded to include areas like personalised medicine, advanced manufacturing, climate and so on.”