Not your traditional PhD journey…

Janet Clifford, Programme Manager

What do you think when you hear the word PhD? I typically visualise an individual surrounded by reams of paperwork, someone scribbling equations on a whiteboard, someone burning the midnight oil at their laptop reading publications. However, in my minds-eye, when I picture this “typical” PhD student, who is dedicating years of their life to research, I always picture this person alone.

It is not typical that when you think of someone pursuing a PhD in Ireland that you think about a collective group of students with similar interests, backgrounds, and goals, studying in company. It is not typical that you associate the word “PhD” with the word “cohort” and it is not typical that you think of internships and completing training alongside industry and enterprise employees.

This is why students in the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training (CRT) in Foundations of Data Science are not on your traditional PhD journey.

The CRT is a new doctoral training programme which will train 130+ PhD students with a world-class foundational understanding of Applied Mathematics, Statistics, and Machine Learning. The programme, which welcomed its first cohort of 27 PhD students in September 2019, is part of the largest ever investment in data science research in Ireland and is a collaborative initiative between Science Foundation Ireland, Skillnet Ireland, University of Limerick, Maynooth University and University College Dublin. The €21m CRT partners with 16 public and private organisations and is coordinated by Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet. 

The CRT blueprint is innovative in both its composition and its content. The programme design selectively chooses the most successful elements from UK Centres for Doctoral Training, EU European Training Networks, European Study Groups with Industry, and the Academy for PhD Training in Statistics, then mixes these with distinctive transversal training to create a unique programme, within and outside Ireland. The core vision of the CRT is for all its graduates to be able to develop and apply bespoke algorithms for future data science needs by leveraging their world-class foundations in the complementary horizontal disciplines of Applied Mathematics, Statistics, and Machine Learning and apply these across one of the five vertical application themes (Data Analytics, Privacy & Security, Networks, Health& Well-being, Smart Manufacturing) to gain domain-specific expertise.

One of the essential aspects of the CRT is the treatment of its students as a cohort. In September 2019, the first 27 students (9 in each institution) commenced their training programme, completing a total of 20 days mandatory training together in year one, attending 4 industry networking events, and completing individual and group projects. By bringing the three sub-cohorts together for intensive teaching blocks at a single site, through group projects and industry-driven problem-solving workshops, integration between the cohorts and a peer-to-peer learning environment is created from day one of the programme. 

This close-knit design creates a graduate-level cohort and extends its effect beyond the students’ training to create ongoing synergistic partnerships between the students, their supervisory collective, industry, and enterprise. Each sub-cohort in each institution shares common office space within their host institution which is sufficiently large to ensure the development of strong social and professional networks that cannot flourish among smaller groups of students. The cohorts also share space with UL, UCD, and MU PhD students outside of the CRT, leveraging the expertise of those students who are further along their PhD journey

2019 cohort on day one of their training programme in the University of Limerick

Not only do the students train together and share space, but the CRT also exposes them to industry and enterprise from the moment they begin their PhD. Alignment with the current and future needs of Irish industry and enterprise is another essential principle of this CRT and there is strong industry involvement in the design and delivery of both transversal and technical training for our PhD cohorts. Our industry partners, the “Enterprise Alliance” develop the scope of their employees by sending them to training days with our PhD students, and they host and deliver seminars and networking events. Our students embark on a 12-week training internship in one of our 16 partner organisations during year one, building foundations that will create industry-ready PhD graduates. Internships coupled with mandatory transversal skills modules, which are interwoven across all 4 years of the programme, ensure our students can communicate their research to industry and are adequately prepared for the workplace post PhD.

The CRT continues to go from strength-to-strength and 34 new students will commence on the programme this September. We are excited to see what this diverse 2020 cohort will bring and we look forward to travelling on their PhD journey with them.

Watch our 2019 cohort video to hear our students talk about why they chose to study in our CRT:

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