Rise of CDTs: what are they and why were they started?

Lauren Peters

In the past decade, dozens of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) have been established across the UK: the PhD culture appears to be evolving. Since joining the CDT-CMP in Bristol and Bath, I am continually asked by friends and family: what is a CDT? Isn’t a PhD an individual pursuit? Where have these centres come from and why were they started? Now two weeks into my time with the CDT, I am starting to find answers to these questions, and through this blog post I hope to share them with you.

Scientific research has long been a collaborative and multidisciplinary venture; but with increased globalisation and access to information this is perhaps more true now than ever. CDTs bring together universities and industrial partners to provide an exciting environment for a cohort of doctoral students, like myself, to gain confidence in exploring new ideas and developing essential skills.

What does being part of a CDT involve?

1) Collaboration with universities

If multiple universities work together to form a CDT, the doctoral students are automatically affiliated with all of them. The CDT I have joined is based at the Universities of Bristol and Bath. This not only means we get two student cards (which is exciting enough!), but also gives us access to research facilities; training opportunities; and world leading academics across a broad range of specialities at both campuses.

2) Collaboration with industry

CDTs are supported by their industrial partners; throughout the 4 years we can work with industry on collaborative projects and work placements. We gain valuable insight into the use of science in industry and help to build crucial links between industry and academia.

3) Skills training

This years CDT-CMP cohort.

This years CDT-CMP cohort.

Instead of narrowing down to a specialised PhD project immediately, the focus of the first year in a CDT is to broaden horizons and develop technical and transferable skills. We experience a diverse range of research styles and methods and come into contact with lots of academics and research groups. As well as developing skills using experimental equipment and computer software, we learn a multitude of soft skills: team work; presentation skills; critical reviewing of
academic papers; networking; blogging. Very quickly I have learnt that trying new things and stepping out of my comfort zone is obligatory. But what better way to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to meet the demands of being a research scientist in today’s world.

4) Joining a cohort

In a CDT, typically between 8 to 12 students of varying background and expertise start the PhD journey together. During the first year we therefore form a close network and have many opportunities to work together, share ideas and learn the importance of peer review in scientific research.

The Bigger Picture

All of this is great for us, the students, but what is the bigger picture from the point of view of the research councils; the government; and the industrial partners?

A large cohort brings many ideas

A large cohort brings many ideas


The CDT I am part of is funded by EPSRC, the main government agency for funding research and training in Engineering and Physical Sciences. EPSRC first piloted CDTs in 2004 in response to the changing research landscape.

“Government has endorsed our approach to cohort-based research training, allocating additional funds directly for this purpose. Our Centres for Doctoral Training model, delivering the highly-skilled, numerate individuals the UK needs, is being widely adopted by others. We will continue to learn from and evolve this model of training and ensure it complements the flexible support provided through our Doctoral Training Partnerships.” EPSRC Strategic Plan 2015


In November 2013 the Rt Hon David Willets, then the Minister of Science and Universities, announced a £350 million fund for 72 new CDTs to train over 3,500 postgraduate students in engineering and physical sciences.

“I am particularly pleased to see strong partnerships between universities, industry and business among the new centres announced today. This type of collaboration is a key element of our industrial strategy and will continue to keep us at the forefront of the global science race.”

Through CDTs the government hopes to see more and more scientists understand not only the science, but also how businesses depend on it.

“We must bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the marketplace and reverse the trend of declining investment by business in R&D in the UK.” Government Industrial Strategy Progress Report April 2014.

To bridge this gap the government has chosen to invest heavily in ‘Eight Great Technologies’. Each of these are believed to be areas in which the UK has the potential to become a world leader. One of the eight, ‘advanced materials and nano-technology’, includes research into graphene and high temperature superconductors: a particular focus of the CDT-CMP in Bristol and Bath.


Having the support of funding bodies and government means nothing without the enthusiasm and willingness for industrial partners to engage with researchers in academia.

Tim Whitley – Managing Director, BT Research

“The CDTs are going to create the UK’s Centres of Excellence and really help to establish the research landscape, in a very real sense, over the next few years. They importantly create the skills and expertise that companies like BT need.”

Dr Michael Cuthbert – Managing Director, Oxford Instruments NanoScience

“Establishing partnerships with experts in the field and supporting the talent pipeline of future research and technology leaders, both as future customers and future employees, is an important underpinning activity for us as a nanotechnology business.”

CC-BY logoThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Images: Tony Webster, published under a CC BY 2.0 license.


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