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Doctor in the house

Engineering doctorate

Persuading your employer that postgraduate education will benefit you both is not always easy. Diarmaid Fleming learns about a course which seems to have solved the conundrum.

Studying for a doctorate in engineering conjures up images of long periods of time spent in a laboratory or library, well away from the smell of diesel or tense site meetings.

Despite its huge contribution to the UK economy, the construction industry still appears to view research and development with suspicion.

And this attitude is not confined to those working at the sharp end. A request to an employer to study for a doctorate would, in many firms, be greeted rather with concern at the study commitment required from a valued employee, than pleasurable anticipation of the benefits such study might bring to the firm.

Many of the difficulties stem from the perceived separation between industry and academia, with the frequent complaint from industry that academia operates too much in isolation.

So satisfying the needs of industry through study would seem to be a lofty ambition. But one institution, through an imaginative postgraduate degree programme, seems to have found the right balance, judging from the response of its students or 'research engineers' as they are known, and their sponsoring companies.

The Centre for Innovative Construction Engineering (CICE), based at Loughborough University, has set about overcoming difficulties of marrying the needs of industry with research. It offers a four year doctor of engineering (EngD) qualification - a postgraduate degree very different from the conventional route of study.

'The degree is a radical alternative to the traditional PhD, being better suited to the needs of industry, and providing a more vocationally oriented doctorate in engineering, ' says CICE director, professor Chimay Anumba.

Topics for research include innovative procurement and management practices, advanced analysis and design, sustainable construction, novel construction techniques and innovative construction materials.

'Projects must demonstrate innovation in the application of knowledge to the engineering business. The work has to make a significant contribution to the performance of the company and thus has to be in the mainstream, not a 'student' project on the sidelines, ' says Anumba.

Research engineers must be sponsored by a company or 'industrial partner', which has an interest in a particular area of study. The sponsor is involved in the selection of candidates and in setting the pattern of their course work, jointly designed with academics.

After enrolment, doctorate students will be expected to spend at least 70% of their time with the sponsoring firm, meaning that, for the sponsor, any benefits flowing from the ongoing research will be immediate.

The course also involves taught modules at the CICE, as well as attendance with academic tutors, and can include the award of an MSc en route to the final doctorate qualification.

The CICE was established in 1999 and benefits from funding provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Research engineers receive £8,000 tax free annually from the EPSRC, as well as a top up grant of £3,000 tax free from the sponsoring company. This can be increased at the sponsor's discretion.

'The advantage for companies is that they can undertake research in an area where they have real technical or business needs at relatively low cost, and have access to expertise across the whole of the university, ' says professor Anumba.

One research student says that participation in the course has transformed his career. Lee Bibby replied to an advertisement in NCE for a place on the programme, and found himself matched with Skanska UK. His project 'Delivering new ways of managing the design process' has brought him into contact with people at levels in the company that he would never have dreamt of in his previous role.

'I am part of a team in the company looking at organisational change, which for someone at 29 I would have thought was unheard of. The industry is going through so much change, and my studies mean I am involved in that, ' says Bibby, on his way to Hong Kong to make a presentation as part of his work.

Consultant Buro Happold has two research engineers on the Loughborough EngD programme. Research development and innovation co-ordinator Dr Andrew Cripps says the benefits come from having dedicated research carried out by someone working within the firm, rather than by someone elsewhere at an academic institution.

'First, we have someone who actually has the time to carry out the research into a topic which we are interested in. Plenty of people have ideas which they would like to research in detail, but for most people their daily work takes up 100% of their time, so it's not possible, ' says Dr Cripps.

'You could achieve a certain amount with someone in university, but you don't get the same interaction with real live activity as you do with someone working on an EngD within the firm. And that benefits the researcher too because they're on hand to see how their research work is directly applied on projects, ' he adds.

Apart from the manpower and time of the student, the programme also benefits the sponsoring firm by giving access to Loughborough University's research firepower and academic back up.

The two current projects Buro Happold's EngD students are working on involve research into modelling the flow of people and studies into 'collaborative prototyping'. Cripps explains that the latter aims to provide a more streamlined construction process by enabling different teams on a project - for example structural engineers and their M&E counterparts - to work to one model, rather than producing different independent sets of drawings which then have to be reconciled to produce the project model.

INFOPLUS www. lboro. ac. uk/cice. re Applications for this year's EngD intake at Loughborough should be received by 7 June.

For more information see Courses, page ? ? ?

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