Industry job cuts in pandemic ‘push postgraduates to academia’

Bleak economic outlook is swaying PhD candidates towards a university career despite sector difficulties, indicates a survey of UK research students

November 5, 2020
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Postgraduate research students are more likely to pursue an academic career as a result of the coronavirus crisis despite job losses caused by the pandemic, a major survey suggests.

The increased enthusiasm for a career in academia was revealed by Advance HE’s annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, published on 5 November, which collected more than 8,000 responses from postgraduates both before the start of lockdown in mid-March and also during lockdown.

Those students who responded during lockdown – about half of all respondents – were more likely to want to stay in academia than those who answered prior to 16 March, the date when health secretary Matt Hancock said all unnecessary social contact must cease, according to the survey of postgraduates at 45 UK universities.

Those respondents closest to finishing their studies were more likely to opt for an academic career following the lockdown, the survey indicates; some 42 per cent of those in their fourth year or beyond who answered in lockdown wanted to stay in academia compared to 35 per cent who responded before lockdown – a difference of 7 percentage points, or 20 per cent.

For third-year postgraduate research students, the difference was 3 percentage points (37 per cent of post-lockdown respondents wanted an academic career compared with 34 per cent before lockdown).

“Whereas academic jobs in higher education have been incredibly competitive in recent years, perhaps the reduction in available jobs outside of academia makes an academic career all the more appealing,” says the study, which also found students were far less likely to consider leaving their courses during lockdown than before it. Some 31 per cent of respondents admitted they had considered quitting their course prior to lockdown, which fell to 26 per cent during lockdown.

However, many respondents felt their training for an academic career had been harmed by the pandemic, which had, in particular, restricted their opportunities to teach: 58 per cent of respondents who answered in lockdown said they received formal training for teaching, down from 70 per cent who responded before lockdown, according to the study.

Those who responded in lockdown were also less likely to complete their studies on time, with 72 per cent of year-three students saying they would finish on time compared to 78 per cent who answered prior to lockdown. For those in year four and beyond, the proportions were 79 per cent and 73 per cent respectively.

One researcher explained that their “workload has doubled” due to Covid-19; another commented that their “research is on hold due to Covid-19 [as] I am unable to collect data”; and another, an NHS worker, said they had been unable to continue at the same pace due to “the availability of my supervisors”.

However, 80 per cent of postgraduate research students are satisfied with their overall research degree experience – with satisfaction levels marginally higher for those quizzed in lockdown compared to those who answered before it began.

Jonathan Neves, head of business intelligence and surveys at Advance HE, said the “strong levels of satisfaction recorded during lockdown provide a powerful endorsement of the excellent levels of support that institutions across the sector have provided to postgraduate researchers during the pandemic”.

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