Funding PhDs for four years ‘being considered’ by UK council

Economic and Social Research Council may provide four years of PhD funding amid concerns over stress caused by three-year model

December 12, 2019
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A UK research council is considering funding fewer PhD students but supporting them for four years, amid rising concerns over the stress placed on doctoral candidates by the current three-year model.

The Economic and Social Research Council, which funds about 500 PhD studentships a year, has launched a “major review of PhD training and support” that, according to its 2019 delivery plan, may “lead to fundamental changes in the length, structure, content and quality of the doctoral training experience”.

Asked if the review would consider funding PhD students for four or more years, even if this meant having fewer candidates, Lucy Thorne, the council’s head of skills and methods, said it was “something we are prepared to think about”.

“It is something we have heard from the directors of doctoral training partnerships, and we will take this into account in our review,” Dr Thorne told a Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference in London last week.

Such a policy would, however, run counter to the government’s wish for more PhD students. The UK would need about 25,000 more postgraduate research students by 2027 (it has about 110,000 at present) if annual research spending was increased to 2.4 per cent of GDP – a target backed by each of the UK’s three main political parties – analysis by Research England shows.

At present, the ESRC funds studentships on the basis that candidates will take three and a half years to complete. It provides them, as do other research councils, with a basic maintenance grant of £15,009 a year – roughly the equivalent to a minimum wage salary.

However, there are growing concerns that many PhD students are being pushed into financial difficulty when their funding runs out before they are able to submit their theses.

Lorraine Maltby, deputy vice-president (research and innovation) at the University of Sheffield, said funding students for only three years was “not tenable” because of the additional training requirements and because “the pressure to complete [within three years] is affecting the mental health of students”.

“Our analysis of PhD students at Sheffield shows that it takes about three and a half years to do all the disciplinary work and core training – but with the additional requirements, it takes four years,” Professor Maltby told Times Higher Education.

“If we are going to put more money into research, I would like to see PhD students supported for longer and funded for the right amount of time,” she added.

“Almost no one finishes in three years and 70 per cent or so don’t finish in four years, yet most [PhD candidates] only get three years funding,” agreed David Bogle, pro vice-provost at UCL’s Doctoral School.

“Research councils are rightly now saying they should be funded until submission, which is the way it should be, although their messages are confusing and contradictory,” added Professor Bogle.

However, he rejected the idea that fewer PhD students should be funded in light of the apparently dwindling number of permanent entry-level academic jobs.

“The evidence doesn’t support [the idea] that there are too many PhDs,” said Professor Bogle, adding that “employment rates are still higher than any other qualification level.”

But he questioned whether potential PhD students would want to study for much longer, saying that “some supervisors will always want longer but few candidates will”.

Pamela Cox, director of the South East Network for Social Sciences, a doctoral training partnership of 10 universities, and a professor of sociology at the University of Essex, said PhD structures used in different countries should be explored, including the “Dutch model” where PhD candidates are employed as paid researchers for at least four years and given full staff benefits. In Sweden, doctoral candidates are also treated as full-time paid employees and funded for at least four years.

“I wish we would look beyond these shores at different models and not just to the five-year luxury model seen in the US,” said Professor Cox.

Owen Gower, director of the UK Council for Graduate Education, questioned whether the far more expensive Dutch model would work in the UK. “The Netherlands is a totally different ecosystem to the UK – it only has about 15,000 doctoral candidates,” said Dr Gower. “While the model has lots going for it, I’m not sure we could do that here, where we have to grow doctoral numbers,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Funding PhDs for four years ‘being considered’

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Reader's comments (2)

In fields like business & management (and to some extent economics), the 3-year model is simply not workable. Indeed, the UK model where one needs to have a Masters degree to apply for a PhD is even less workable. For example, 99.9% of individuals getting a Masters in a B&M subject are getting it to get a job. There is no real academic or intellectual content beyond that necessary to be practical and enter the workplace. Someone coming into a PhD programme with an UG degree in B&M plus a Masters in B&M is unlikely to have the skills necessary to take on a PhD and be successful as an academic. Usually, the ones applying to PhD programmes are those who were unsuccessful in getting a job based on that Masters degree. If I go back to my days in the US, nearly all of my PhD cohort had degrees in something other than B&M but were in the b-school PhD programme (they were sociologists, psychologists, economists, engineers, mathematicians, etc.) and none had a Masters degree (I had a BSc). But they were brilliant; which is why they were there (present company excluded). When I was the Research Dean at a Russell Group school, I joked that our best UG students could go and get a PhD at MIT or Harvard but could not be admitted to our programme (except as a special case requiring some bureaucratic gerrymandering) . We came up with a plan to move to a US style model admitting "distinction" level applicants with only an UG degree but giving them intensive coursework that trained them more effectively for their future as an academic. This was necessary simply because we found that they couldn't compete in the academic job market against peers from N. America or Asia where there was no requirement that someone have a Masters degree to be admitted to a PhD programme and where there was usually 5x the level of methodological and theoretical training. So the issue is just not time, but structure and flexibility. The problem with funding from groups like the ESRC is that they need to have uniform systems and these tend to be dominated by certain fields. In reality, there is a need for more flexibility and an understanding that the Masters first approach is mostly an anachronism and simply a deterrent to those with the best options. The model we proposed at my prior institution was 1+4 which might look as if it was a long road but the reality is that if people are forced into the Masters model you end up wasting 5-6 years once gaps are taken into account. This is simply inefficient for the person but also most likely going to not entice the best and brightest to look to the UK for their PhDs when they can go to places where they can waste less of their lives on the degree and get more value from less time.
As someone with experience in the UK, Scandinavia and the US, I can say that the 3-year model in the UK is bonkers. It is so rushed, so oppressive, so niggard, so proletarianized. It is shameful what the UK does to is PhD students.

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