Australian PhD funding ‘encourages perverse outcomes’

‘Lottery’ for mandated replication studies would encourage ‘greater care’ over ‘datasets’, Australian researchers argue

June 7, 2023
Stressed PhD student at laptop
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Australian PhD students are being “set up to fail” by a funding system that maximises enrolments while overlooking “modest” employment prospects and “questionable” research practices, according to a new paper.

An article in the journal Nature Human Behaviour argues that early career researchers (ECRs) tolerate bullying, harassment and job insecurity because there are simply too many of them.

“An oversupply of PhD graduates means tough competition for jobs, and that when ECRs are worn out they will be quickly replaced,” says the article, by researchers from Queensland University of Technology and Federation University Australia. “Training many PhD graduates and ECRs for careers that do not exist is irrational.”

Australia graduates more doctoral students than most developed countries despite its below-average investment in research and development, with PhD numbers growing far more quickly than the number of academic jobs. The authors blame the formula used to award some A$2 billion (£1.1 billion) of annual block grants that support researcher training and indirect costs such as laboratories, consumables and technicians’ salaries.

Half this funding is allocated according to institutional PhD completion figures, the authors note, with block grant settings “and access to cheap labour” encouraging Australian universities to maximise PhD enrolments. “Only a PhD completion yields a dividend, potentially incentivising institutes to overlook candidate quality…to capture the completion dividend.”

The authors say that while R&D funding should be increased “where feasible”, the formula for allocating block grants should be based on graduates’ employment rates rather than their completions.

“Programmes might be adapted to include broader training if graduate employment were a fundable metric,” the authors suggest. “This approach might also function to reduce Australian PhD intake in fields in which employment is challenging.

“It may be better for both individuals and the nation to simply increase the barrier for entry into some PhD programmes – instead of the current barrier, which is a limited capacity for research employment following PhD graduation.”

The trio of researchers penned the article after their survey of more than 500 ECRs uncovered soaring workloads, plunging job satisfaction and “worryingly common” research malpractice. Co-author Kate Christian, of Queensland University of Technology, said that while PhD students “wouldn’t necessarily agree” with any move to curtail their numbers, “a decent stipend and a slower, more rounded education” would be in their long-term interests.

“Science at large would be better off if we had fewer students [and] a greater investment of time and money,” Dr Christian said.

She said PhD students were “launched into the world unprepared”, with expertise in highly defined specialties but lacking “the rounded education they need to prepare them for life. The university needs them out the door and new ones in, and the supervisors don’t have supervision [time] properly allocated. They too are too busy trying to be on the publication and grant treadmill.”

The paper calls for about one-fifth of research funding to be “allocated to replication studies”, with a “lottery” determining which research will be replicated. Authors of the original studies would be expected to “cooperate and assist”.  

“Many authors would be enthusiastic to see their results validated,” the paper says. “Most authors would want to avoid replication failure and…this would motivate greater care in the evaluation and publication of datasets.”

The paper says it is “irrational” for the global research community to spend “billions” on science that is not being validated. “Academic research requires an audit process.”

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Reader's comments (1)

It's pleasing to see this dilemma bright to broader public attention. It's why so many 'industry' research projects become 3.5 year PhD projects, which then often results in unmet expectations of universities' capabilities.