As the pressure mounts on Debbie Smith, a third-year PhD student in her final months of thesis-writing, she plans to make use of one of Kingston University's four graduate centres. There, close to the library, she will be able to make herself tea or coffee, access a computer, and, most important of all, find guaranteed quiet. "The library in general is ridiculously noisy, so this room is just full of hardworking postgraduates," she says.
The first of these dedicated postgraduate spaces dates back to 2000, the year that Kingston's graduate school was set up. The last was founded about three years ago. But there is more to the graduate school than space. In the past, Smith, who is studying for a doctorate in psychology, has approached its director of graduate studies, Ralph Manly, for advice on finding research grants, and has taken a number of the training courses the school or-ganises, from defining what a PhD is to preparation for exposure in the media. The early ones she found particularly helpful - not least for networking with other research students - but she says that general provision for postgraduates in her university has improved, even in the two- and-a-half years she has been there.
Kingston is by no means the only institution where graduates are getting better service than they used to. Graduate schools, long a tradition in the States, have been developing in most UK institutions over the past decade or so, and the services they provide have rapidly expanded. Many now organise welcome events and inductions, either across the institution or within individual faculties. Most have dedicated websites setting out regulations, and giving details of training courses, events, scholarships, competitions, and useful external links.
Often, the schools will incorporate some kind of online personal- development planning for students, such as a logbook to track their research career. Some graduate schools are entirely virtual, others have a dedicated office with an administrator, and some provide common rooms and seminar space and have one or more dedicated academic staff to champion research students' needs on committees. To what extent such services are provided at central or faculty level differs from institution to institution. Many of the larger research-intensive universities devolve responsibility for graduates down to individual faculties. Manchester University, for example, has separate graduate schools in each faculty, with a central co- ordinating skills group and overarching activities managed by associate deans. According to Paul Shore, director of the graduate training programme in the faculty of life sciences, it has decided on this structure partly because of the institution's large size, partly because of the feeling that research students need training and other services to be tailored to what they are studying. "It is possible to teach generic skills, but in the context of their research training and postgraduate training," he says. Each research student has a personal adviser, as well as their supervisor to monitor their progress, and the university has set up an electronic graduate training programme, accessible at any time, incorporating both skills training and personal development.
But David Bogle, head of the graduate school at UCL, says that his institution made a conscious decision to have a single overarching graduate school because it wanted to turn out more rounded graduates, as well as avoid duplicating effort. While different academics are responsible for graduate affairs in three faculties covering biomedicine; built environment, engineering, mathematics and sciences; and arts, law and social and historical sciences, for Bogle, the graduate school's most important role is "to provide student support beyond any disciplinary boundaries". "To develop a research career you need to see well beyond your project," he says. …