The LEU has an excellent record of clinical and non-clinical PhD training, with 14 PhDs and one MD awarded between 2003 and 2008. About half have been through clinical fellowships, the rest being members of our non-clinical staff from a diversity of backgrounds who have chosen to undertake a part-time higher degree alongside their contracted work. These PhD students have enrolled with the University of Southampton, which fosters a student-centred, research-led education environment and invests significantly within our areas of research (the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and Community Based Clinical Sciences).

Generic and transferable skills

Students are registered with the Graduate School of Health Sciences and undergo a 2-week orientation programme providing a mixture of research techniques and generic skills, including IT training in spreadsheets and databases. This introductory course provides the skills required to select appropriate methodology to perform research in a safe and ethical manner, as well as an understanding of critical appraisal techniques. The orientation fortnight introduces research activities and specialist techniques through seminars with senior faculty members and external experts. This compulsory component of the PhD training introduces the student to a research group, the Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, and wider university faculty. Students engaged in laboratory work require an induction in health and safety, and an understanding of risk assessment, standard operating procedures, and good laboratory practice.

Training in transferable skills and personal/professional development is in keeping with the Roberts Review (SET for Success) and the Research Councils UK Joint Skills Statement. Our students attend a comprehensive transferable skills programme run by the University of Southampton which covers a broad range of topics including: communication, presentation and scientific writing; teaching and supervision, project and time management; personal development; management and team building; entrepreneurship. Continuing professional development is enhanced by courses in statistics and data handling, to which members of the LEU senior scientific team contribute. Graduate students are actively encouraged to attend a seminar programme run by the University of Southampton Postdoctoral Association, which is focused on career development and complements the transferable skills workshops. The seminar programme provides an insight into a range of potential career opportunities. Affiliation of the transferable skills and seminar programmes to the University of Southampton Postdoctoral Association permits seamless career development and provides opportunities for integration of students and postdoctoral fellows. These initiatives ensure assimilation of our MRC PhD students with the larger cadre undergoing postgraduate training within the higher education institution as a whole. An annual faculty postgraduate student conference provides students with an excellent forum for demonstrating their developing transferable skills, in particular their communication skills. For each student a poster presentation is compulsory in year 2, and an oral in year 3.

Supervisory arrangements and assessment of student progress

Supervisor selection and training comprises an important platform within the postgraduate research strategy. Each student is provided with two supervisors, at least one of whom will be an expert in the research area. The key to success lies in a balance between expertise, project fit and candidate fit – in essence we seek to tailor projects and supervisors to each individual student. Additional supervisors are appointed as appropriate to ensure that the relevant expert guidance is available for our students at the Unit. Supervisors within the LEU are extremely well supported and are involved in continuous professional development and programmes/workshops on student management; supervision and pastoral care are available through the School of Medicine. The School also operates a vibrant and successful supervisor forum which incorporates LEU scientific staff and permits feedback, information dissemination and information packs summarising supervisor responsibilities. The School monitors supervisor training during the application process for PhD enrolment, and provides support to younger supervisors. We have introduced a supervisor accreditation scheme to reward supervisors for high quality supervision and to ensure their continuing professional development.

Student progress is formally monitored at regular intervals by progress reports from both the supervisors and the student. These formative assessments encourage the development of critical thinking through debate and discussion and ensure adequate progress and supervision. Through this process, potential problems are identified and dealt with early in the student’s course. Formal progress milestones include a transfer thesis and viva examination at 18-24 months. Written feedback is also provided to the student by the supervisor (and the internal examiner where appropriate) at each stage spanning a wide range of criteria (science, written and oral communication, personal effectiveness). Finally, all students maintain a ‘record of achievement’ collated by the School of Medicine office that summarises their training activities. Students are issued with induction packs and handbooks, which are also available on the School website.

We have a number of members of staff who have pursued a PhD within the Unit following the procedures outlined above. Retaining those who have conducted PhDs here allows us to be more aware of the quality of training provided through the University and within the Unit. Some of these former PhD students are now themselves supervisors of others and contribute to the evolution of the training to ensure that it is of the highest calibre. As the majority of our PhD students are employed within the Unit there is an on-going dialogue about the quality of the training that is provided, both of the broader PhD skills and those specific to the research being undertaken.

Clinical Research Programmes

As an MRC Unit with a strong clinical base, we aim to provide high quality training for clinical scientists through PhD and postdoctoral training. Two of the five research programmes within the LEU contributed to the success of the School of Medicine in the National Competition for NIHR Clinical Fellowships and Lecturers. Thus, the programme on Bone and Joint Disease (lead: Professor Cyrus Cooper) successfully obtained funding for five Academic Clinical Fellows (one per year) in rheumatology; that in geriatric medicine (lead: Professor Avan Aihie Sayer) obtained two Academic Clinical Fellowships in Elderly Care Research. These Fellowships permit a full-time trainee to undertake the equivalent of nine months generic research methods training and develop a research proposal for an externally funded Research Training Fellowship to be undertaken within the LEU. The remainder of the academic fellowship comprises a structured training programme in rheumatology or geriatric medicine, through rotation among host rheumatology units throughout Wessex. Three Academic Clinical Fellows have already rotated through the Unit since success in this scheme during 2006. They have laid the foundation for research programmes into the epidemiology and pathophysiology of osteoporosis, as well as the epidemiology and natural history of osteoarthritis. One has progressed to an arc Clinical Research Fellowship undertaking her PhD dissertation on follow-up of the offspring in the Southampton Women’s Survey.

It is envisaged that a successful Academic Clinical Fellowship application leads to a further three years in full-time clinical research, culminating in a PhD. There would then be a natural progression to a Lecturer position in the Medical School. As part of the same national competition, we secured two Lecturer posts in rheumatology; both initial post-holders have progressed to substantive academic posts.