EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemistry


This Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) is in the field of Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids. This area of science deals with long-chain molecules, gels, particles, pastes and complex fluids. It is of fundamental importance for many commercial sectors, including paints & coatings, home & personal care products, agrochemicals, engine oils & lubrication, enhanced oil recovery, biomedical devices & drug delivery. Thus substantial EPSRC investment in this industrially-relevant field will directly support the UK economy and enhance its competitiveness over the longer term, as well as contributing to our scientific capacity to address important technical challenges and major societal problems such as sustainability and energy security.

Sheffield Polymer Centre academics have a wealth of research experience in the areas of polymer chemistry, polymer physics, colloid science, soft matter physics and polymer engineering. This breadth of expertise is unique and is certainly unrivalled anywhere in the UK. Between us, we offer a superb range of research facilities and state-of-the-art instrumentation that provide excellent postgraduate training opportunities. We have also run a popular annual industrial training course and three relevant taught MSc courses for many years. Thus the logistical experience of our current administrative staff and existing teaching infrastructure will provide invaluable support in running this new CDT. Moreover, this prior activity underlines our institution's deep commitment to this important interdisciplinary field.

Our vision is to engage closely with a wide range of companies, e.g. AkzoNobel, Lubrizol, P & G, Cytec, Synthomer, Scott Bader, GEO, Wellstream, LBFoster, Philips, Ossila, Syngenta, DSM, Ashland, BP and Unilever, in order to provide the next generation of highly skilled PhD scientists with high-level technical skills, intellectual rigour, excellent communication skills, flexibility and business acumen. This is essential if we are to produce the creative problem-solvers that will be required to tackle the many formidable technical and societal challenges now facing mankind.

Our ambition is to secure at least £2.0 million from our industrial partners in order to support fifty CASE PhD projects over five years. Six PhD studentships p.a. (i.e. thirty in total) are requested from EPSRC, which will be supplemented by a substantial institutional contribution of three studentships p.a. (i.e. fifteen in total). This institutional commitment is in recognition of the continuing strategic importance of this research area to the University of Sheffield. An additional studentship p.a. (i.e. five in total) will be funded by top-slicing the enhanced CASE contributions from our industrial partners to make up the annual cohort of ten students. EPSRC investment in this CDT is warranted given our substantial institutional portfolio of many active EPSRC grants (including Programme and Platform grants), plus a £2.0 M ERC grant.

Our CDT training programme will include the following highly distinctive features: (i) our unrivalled breadth of academic knowledge and experience; (ii) a choice of research projects for our PhD students prior to their enrolment; (iii) an initial two-week training course on the basic principles of polymer science and engineering; (iv) a monthly seminar programme led by industrial scientists to expose our students to a wide range of commercially-relevant topics; (v) a six-month secondment with the industrial partner in the latter part of the research programme, which will provide our students with invaluable experience of the workplace and hence prepare them for their industrial and/or managerial careers; (vi) a 'business enterprise' course led by an external consultant (Jo Haigh) and one of our industrial partners (Synthomer) to develop and encourage entrepreneurial flair in each PhD cohort; (vii) a visit to an overseas academic laboratory to facilitate international collaboration.

Planned Impact

Our fifty PhD students will benefit substantially from the proposed high-quality postgraduate research programme, since it will comprise a range of bespoke activities, such as monthly seminars on topics of industrial relevance, an annual residential summer school, a business enterprise module in year 2, a visit to an overseas academic laboratory to facilitate a scientific collaboration, and a six-month secondment with their industrial sponsor in either year 3 or year 4. This unique training experience will equip them to thrive during their PhD projects, and also while on secondment with their industrial sponsors. Thus they will become mature, highly desirable employees entering a competitive workplace and are expected to emerge as future industrial and academic leaders in the commercially important field of Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids.

This CDT will have a positive impact on our industrial partners because they will have the opportunity to work with excellent academic scientists and talented, highly motivated PhD students on commercially-relevant research projects. The six-month secondments are expected to be technically fruitful and also serve as an 'extended job interview' to allow an in-depth assessment of the PhD student's ability and aptitude with regard to their future employability. These secondments will also serve as an excellent opportunity for technology transfer from U. Sheffield to the industrial partners.

It is rather unlikely that all 50 PhD students will receive (or accept) job offers from their industrial sponsors. Even if this were to be the case, it would be extraordinary if all fifty students then went on to have productive long-term careers working solely for their first employer. Thus UK plc in general will receive a substantial boost by the influx of 50 excellent, highly employable scientists with a range of technical expertise in the industrially-relevant field of Polymers, Colloids and Soft Matter. In this context it is important to recognise that there has been strong demand for our PhD students in this field over the last five years, despite the economic downturn.

The 48 academic members of the Sheffield Polymer Centre will benefit directly from this opportunity to engage more closely with industrial partners and also with each other via co-supervised research projects. In particular, it is envisaged that at least ten PhD studentships will be used strategically to foster new collaborations to bolster interdisciplinary, inter-faculty research activity. We will also use this CDT as a mechanism to encourage Early Career Researchers to engage fruitfully with industrial partners, which will be highly beneficial for their long-term careers. Experienced senior academics will provide appropriate mentoring and advice for important aspects such as IP negotiation.

The University of Sheffield will certainly benefit from this CDT since it will enhance its strong international reputation for excellence in the field of Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids. Over the longer term, it is also expected that these 50 CASE PhD projects will lead to the development of more substantial strategic relationships with selected industrial partners, which will provide an important revenue stream from the resulting full-FEC research contracts. This CDT will also represent an opportunity for sharing best practice between academics with plenty of experience of industrial engagement (e.g. Armes, Rimmer, Fairclough, Lewis etc.) with their junior and/or less experienced colleagues. We also intend to utilise this CDT to foster greater collaboration between the Science, Engineering and Medical faculties by encouraging joint supervision of PhD projects, wherever this is appropriate.

Finally, the strong academic leadership, scientific excellence, intellectual rigour, superb training opportunities and fruitful industrial engagement demonstrated by this new CDT will provide an exemplar for other EPSRC-funded CDTs.


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