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New approach to PhD training aimed at digital skills needs

Science Foundation Ireland programme will see at least 175 graduates recruited

The newly-launched Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) centres for research training programme is aimed at meeting future digital and information communication technology (ICT) skills needs by providing training for 700 PhD students. The €100 million programme is the first of its kind for SFI and will see at least 175 graduates recruited to six centres across the country each year for the next four years.

"The new centres will bring together the higher-education sector and industry to develop and deliver innovative programmes of research and training for postgraduate students in Ireland, " says Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI director of science for society. "SFI aims for this to be the best programme in the world providing major opportunities for PhD students in Ireland and a rich source of outstanding graduates who will be sought after by employers in both the private and public sectors."

Operating on a thematic basis in terms of skills needs, the first centres will focus on the area of “data and ICT skills for the future”. “We put the concept out for consultation last year and that was the area where the most pronounced skills gap was identified,” Dr Freeman adds. “This is a new approach for Ireland. We are taking best bits from higher education institutions and putting them together with industry to create amazing training programmes for PhDs.”

The scope of the thematic area includes innovative software and hardware-based ICT as well as the diffusion of those technologies in other application areas of science and technology.


Global hyperconnectivity

The next generation of researchers who will seek solutions to the technical and societal challenges of global hyperconnectivity will be trained at the Advanced Networks for Sustainable Societies centre. The centre will focus on enabling technologies for future hyper-networks, concepts such as network virtualisation, dependable communications, Internet of Things, data-driven network management and applications in sustainable and independent living.

The genomics data science centre will produce highly-trained scientists capable of engaging effectively with the data science challenges involved in realising the transformative potential of genomics across the broad range of its applications. The digitally-enhanced reality centre will focus on the development of digital skills for next-generation human-centric media technology.

Solutions in areas such as smart buildings, mobility and transportation, autonomous vehicles, public-service delivery, manufacturing, enterprise, cybersecurity, climate change and environment, agriculture, marine, food production and natural resources will form the area of focus for the artificial intelligence centre.

Foundations of Data Science brings together the disciplines of applied mathematics, statistics and machine learning to train PhD students to meet the rapidly-evolving needs of Ireland’s data science industry. The machine learning centre will specifically address the increasing demand from industry for talent in this critical area.

The centres involve partnerships across multiple higher education institutions including University College Dublin, Technological University of Dublin, Dublin City University, Trinity College Dublin, Cork Institute of Technology, University College Cork, Maynooth University, University of Limerick, NUI Galway, Tyndall National Institute and Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. A number of SFI research centres and about 90 industry partners are also involved.

Distributed excellence

"This is a new kind of PhD for Ireland," says Freeman. "We looked globally at what countries like Denmark, the US, Israel and Singapore were doing. We looked at the very best out there and combined what they were doing with our own strengths here in Ireland. We also adapted for size. In some countries a single institution could host one of the centres, they would have all of the expertise and resources required. That's not possible here in Ireland and that's why we have multiple institutions coming together. We are utilising the distributed excellence which exists across the institutions."

The training and learning process is also very different. “Traditionally, we had an apprenticeship model here in Ireland where the PhD candidate worked with a supervisor in the lab and so on. This is very different. A group of academic researchers in an area like AI will come together, recruit a brilliant group of undergraduates and start a centre for research training together. The PhDs will do normal research projects, but they will also work and interact with industry and acquire cross-sectoral training and skills. There will also receive career mentoring and other benefits. It’s a PhD plus, plus, plus.”

The centres will take a cohort-based approach to research training which will expose students to the wider scientific relevance of their research, encourage peer-to-peer learning and facilitate the establishment of networks. “They will learn how to work in teams”, Freeman adds. “A PhD can be quite a lonely place and one of the benefits of the new centres is that they will allow the students work in teams on real world problems.”

The SFI centres for research training are now open for recruitment and postgraduate students are encouraged to apply. crt@sfi.ie