Ireland helps engineer a more tailored approach to PhD education

13 Sep 2013

Dr Lisa Looney, Dean of Graduate Studies at Dublin City University

Post-graduate education in Ireland is changing. Dr Lisa Looney, Dean of Graduate Studies at Dublin City University (DCU), spoke to Claire O’Connell about tailoring PhD supports and moves to scale up a more structured approach.

“PhD education is going through a change from the traditional model to the structured model – it’s a systemic shift,” says Looney, when we meet at DCU. “And in the European context, Ireland would be recognised as leading the way in several aspects of PhD development.”

Ireland has seen a surge in research post-graduates in recent years, which is in line with national policy to boost the numbers of graduates trained at that level, she explains. DCU alone went from having typically around 200 research students enrolled to a current level of around 800, and more formalised PhD training is emerging, she notes. “Students now have an opportunity to do training both in generic skills and discipline-specific skills, and what we are trying to do is tailored across the years – typically covering research methods and tutoring and demonstrating in first year and moving towards commercialisation in last year.”

Pipelines to new engineering courses

Future Human

Looney did her own PhD in the field of engineering – she worked at the EU’s Institute for Advanced Materials (now the Joint Research Centre Institute for Energy and Transport) in the Netherlands, where she looked at a phenomenon called ‘hydrogen attack’ in pipelines carrying hydrocarbon gases. “The hydrogen gases can migrate into the steel of the pipe, and you can get the development of high-pressure methane bubbles,” she explains. “So the pipe could look absolutely fine for 25 years and then one day there’s a big hole in it, which is not what you want.” 

To improve ways of predicting hydrogen attack, she built rigs in the lab and collected data under controlled conditions – though sometimes it meant waiting awhile. “I had one sample in the lab that was sitting under a high temperature and load for 2.5 years,” she recalls. “Then as well as the experimental part I also developed empirical predictive models.”

Soon after completing her PhD, Looney moved to DCU, where she has worked as a lecturer and researcher for more than 15 years. She developed a particular interest in using powders to make composite materials for biomedical applications, such as bioresponsive coatings on implants and bioscaffolds, and she led the Materials Processing Research Centre.   

During that time, she also helped develop courses in DCU in mechatronic, biomedical and mechanical manufacturing programmes, and she was the first person appointed to the role of Dean of Graduate Studies in DCU, a position she has held for the last two years.

Tailoring the PhD

A major focus at the moment is to tailor PhD supports and education to suit the student and project context, explains Looney. She is part of an initiative across 3U, a partnership between DCU, NUI Maynooth and the Royal College of Surgeons, to identify more appropriate approaches for doctoral studies in education itself. 

“The students in that area are typically not 22 years old and have not gone from undergraduate to doing a PhD in a lab – they are generally professionally active and mid-career,” she says. “So we are looking at new approaches to tailor PhD education and supervision in these areas. And 3U gives us the scale to be able to do that.”

In science and engineering, the relatively new ‘structured’ PhD format – such as BioAT, which is run between DCU, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), NUI Maynooth and IT Tallaght – can offer graduate students more a formalised track through the degree and it also gives them the experience of working in different labs and with industry. 

Looney is also encouraging more international mobility for students. DCU is co-ordinating an Erasmus Mundus doctoral programme in extreme ultraviolet (EUV) and X-ray science, which helps her keep an ear to the ground in European policy agencies, and DCU became the first university outside North America to collaborate with IBM on student internships, which sees DCU PhD students get the chance to complete internships with IBM Research in Brazil. 

Scaling up

At the moment, the thematic structured PhDs and new European mobility programmes are being rolled out to relatively small numbers of students, but the underlying developments are happening and the goal is to scale up the initiatives, according to Looney. 

In her remaining three years as Dean of Graduate Studies, Looney would like to strengthen entrepreneurial skills training and extend take-up of the structured PhD model to more students.

“We have tested the model, we know how to do it and now it’s a case of embedding it in the culture,” she says. “But it also has to be financially sustainable, which is a huge challenge.”

Broader perspectives

When talking to students who are starting out on their post-graduate studies, Looney is upfront about the changing nature of the jobs market. “There can still be a certain expectation of safe, permanent, pensionable academic job, but they are very rare,” she says. “So I encourage students to try and get inter-sectoral experience – get into a company and spend 10 or 12 weeks there. Getting out of the academic environment and seeing another perspective means that when you finish the PhD you have a better sense of the broader options.”

And for Looney herself, the constant change and learning is a major plus in her role. “The best part about my job is the buzz – most people identify with the buzz of figuring out something difficult, even if that goes back to their school days. I still have access to that all the time,” she says. “New researchers are coming in and they are motivated, they think of things you haven’t thought of – it keeps you on your toes.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication