Quantum engineering is a term that is becoming increasingly common across research groups and industry alike. One example, which is the subject of this blog post, is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Doctoral Training in Quantum Engineering, based at the University of Bristol. It is a centre that I myself have been trained in, and currently am part of. But what is a Centre for Doctoral Training (or ‘CDT’ as they are commonly referred to), and what is quantum engineering? Here I will explain what we in Bristol believe these terms mean, and why I think this style of postgraduate training has tremendous advantages.
The Quantum Engineering CDT (QECDT) is very different in its approach to postgraduate teaching. Unlike ‘traditional’ PhDs, where the students undergo three years of study within a selected research group, CDT students join the centre and spend the first year unassigned to any group or project. You begin in September with nine other students (creating a cohort) and undergo an intense training year, which provides lectures, courses, projects, training and a range of other activities that are directed in the general area of quantum engineering, quantum technologies, and transferable skills. During this year each student gets the opportunity to interact with research groups, both in Bristol and beyond, to discover the area of research they enjoy the most. After this year the students then begin a more traditional style PhD with their chosen supervisor and research project, but still with some CDT commitments.
There are a number of reasons why this structure was attractive to pre-PhD me. The primary reason is that I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. Quantum technologies seemed like the way to go, but computing, sensing, photons, ions, superconductors…, I had no idea exactly what quantum technology I would enjoy (or be any good at). The CDT offers you a whole year to learn about all these areas, and the opportunity to go and work in each for a bit. This kind of flexibility is something that I think all students have found a positive experience. Even if you know your particular area of interest, the broad scope of the training gives you a very well rounded view on the field in general, which perhaps one can miss in a more focussed degree.
The second attraction for myself was the cohort learning environment. Meeting and working with nine different people, all from different backgrounds? Yes please! I have since found this one of the best environments and structures for learning that I have ever been a part of (not to mention that it is also a load of fun). The QECDT capitalises on this variation in cohort expertise with a course called ‘Topics in Quantum Engineering’. Here, each student must produce a two hour workshop on a topic which they have had some experience in, but perhaps the rest of the cohort has not. These workshops are written and led by the student, and have previously ranged from microfabrication techniques to quantum states in curved space-time.
Bristol’s definition of quantum engineering is pretty broad, and really tries to cover how you go from theory to building something practical, and what those steps might entail. Understandably this training begins with lecture courses such as quantum information theory, quantum algorithms and quantum device engineering, which cover the theoretical foundations. The year is kept platform independent, and the cohort is trained in each by a visiting expert. Typically the visitors give talks over one or two days, discussing the basics of the platform through to applications and current research.
The year then moves on to developing some research skills, with two three-month projects for each student offering them a chance to delve deeper into a research field. These can be theoretical or experimental in nature, and don't even have to be in Bristol.
Running parallel to all of this content we have a course that is perhaps the most unusual. The ‘Grand Challenge’ module gives the students a chance to investigate an area of quantum technologies, with a scope broader than typical research projects. The area and direction of the project is completely student lead, which gives students an opportunity to shape the content of the final project report (last year we covered the Advances in Quantum Machine Learning and the final report can be found here).
The CDT works hard on developing individual skills for the students. This includes training in things like presentation skills, patent applications, outreach activities (including the 'Science in the Cinema' production – see photo), scientific writing, programming, and a range of other things. All of these activities are usually given by a specialist, creating a large amount of interaction for the CDT with non-academics. This is something that I think is really beneficial, and is particularly important with research that is focussed on taking experiments out of the lab and into industry (like quantum engineering is).
The emphasis on links with industry is something that is repeated across all years of the CDT. The first year incorporates a trip to D-Wave in Vancouver, allowing the students to not only learn the platform, but also how you might develop a quantum technology enterprise. The industry link is further continued in the later years, with funding for industry secondments and plans for an industry day, hosting relevant industry experts for a networking and conference event.
That just about summarises this unconventional course. It’s a blend of traditional teaching, a cohort learning environment and personal development that creates a rather wonderful atmosphere for learning and research. The CDT is always looking for people interested in contributing to the centre. That can be visiting to give a talk on a platform, hosting a mini 3-month project, or even taking on a student for the full blown PhD project. If you are interested in finding out how to do this, or would just like some more information in general, please feel free to get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website.