Graduate School launched for students in medical sciences

A graduate school in the medical sciences has been launched at Oxford University to greatly simplify graduates' hunt for the right research project and provide a package that attracts the best students from around the world.

The Medical Sciences Graduate School manages the process of applying for a research degree place and finding funding via a web portal. It also provides support for graduate students throughout their courses, offering more training and education in basic research skills and techniques, as well as ‘softer’ skills useful for career development.

Professor Anton van der Merwe, Director of Graduate Studies for the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford University, says: 'The Graduate School offers a straightforward way for graduate students anywhere to find a research degree that suits them. It greatly simplifies the application process and we take responsibility for matching the best students with the funding streams available.'

'The aim is to attract the best graduate students, and give them a fuller and more useful experience and training when they are here,' says Philippa O'Connor, who has led efforts in the Medical Sciences Divisional office to realise the new graduate school. 'We want students to have a good experience in applying to Oxford and a good experience when here.'

The Medical Sciences Graduate School should offer more support to graduate students and help plot the progression of their studies and the development of their projects. Postgraduate students should also come out more employable.

Previously, potential applicants may have had to trawl across websites of different departments and institutes looking for a research project that would interest them. They may have needed to make multiple applications for funding and scholarships.

The graduate school now removes much of this burden on applicants by organising it on their behalf. Students can know they will only be judged on the quality of their application to the graduate school and not have to worry about applying to many places to secure the necessary funding.

With students admitted centrally to the graduate school, the best students across the application pool are selected. There are around 100 well-funded studentships available within Oxford that are then matched with the best students applying across all the departments in the medical sciences. Students can also receive advice about obtaining external funding.

That means selection is more rigorous and equitable, rather than being dependent in part on which supervisor has managed to source funding and where particular students have applied to study.

Students are able to apply through two routes to research degrees. Structured programmes see students apply for study in a themed area, such as cancer, heart disease, or infection and immunity. In the first year, students rotate through a set of labs and have teaching and coursework designed to give a broader base. From there they can work towards a more specialised research project of their choosing in later years.

Direct entry is the old-fashioned route to a DPhil degree, where a prospective student identifies a supervisor and a project that they want to work on from the start.

'Students often have a strong preference for one option or the other, and we will offer both routes into research,' says Professor van der Merwe. 'We want to offer a package that is competitive with US universities to attract the best graduate students from around the world.  We are aware that the US is still considered the destination of choice for the top Indian and Chinese students, for example, despite the fact that Oxford University was recently rated the best in the world for medical sciences (in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-2012).

'Some of the main reasons for this are a perception that fully-funded places are difficult to secure at Oxford and the complexity of the application process. The Medical Sciences Graduate School tackles these problems head on.

'We think the package at Oxford is distinctive: we offer a choice of structured programmes or direct entry with well-funded studentships available. The different programmes cater for students from different backgrounds and training in different subject areas looking for research programmes that suit their particular interests.'