Life for PhD students is 'on the up'

August 11, 2006

Elizabeth Barlow is one of the lucky ones, writes Mark Rodgers.

Dr Barlow is a research fellow in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Southampton University and she said that she was surprised to find that she could live comfortably on the tax-free grant available when she was a PhD student.

Crucially, she also experienced a smooth transition when she finished her PhD and secured her first postdoctoral position.

Dr Barlow's positive experience reflects that of many young researchers, according to a new report by Research Councils UK that reviews the progress made in boosting stipends and salaries - recommended in the 2002 Roberts report.

Overall, the lot of the young university researcher has improved enormously over recent years, according to the review.

PhD students and contract researchers were once the poorly treated foot soldiers of academe, but they are now increasingly seen as the future lifeblood of the sector.

Unlike many PhD students, Dr Barlow was not funded by a research council, but she benefited from an equivalent stipend. "I started in February 2003 and received £9,000 plus a mature student allowance of £1,000," Dr Barlow said.

Like many respondents to the RCUK report, she was initially concerned about whether the money would be adequate to support an acceptable quality of life.

"I was very reluctant at first, but was persuaded by the project and the assurance that the stipends were set to increase over the next three years."

The stipend grew to £9,500 in September 2003, to £11,000 in 2004 and finally to £12,000 in 2005.

"This is tax free and, at Southampton, postgraduates can earn about an extra £1,000 a year doing demonstrating and marking duties," Dr Barlow added. "The department seemed very sympathetic to the needs of postgrads in this respect."

This overall increase in doctoral maintenance awards - to £12,000 a year - is generally considered to be adequate, according to the report.

The report says that while pay and security are of critical importance to researchers, they are unlikely to compare their pay in a direct way with the private sector or salaries abroad.

It adds that they are more interested in whether the pay and security they receive is adequate to achieve an acceptable quality of life. In many cases it is not and this is why they consider leaving university.

One of the most serious problems, the report says, is the transition from doctoral to postdoctoral research - traditionally a period of financial uncertainty for researchers.

Dr Barlow said: "I was lucky enough to be able to finish my thesis just as my funding ran out at the end of January 2006 and started a postdoc in the same project immediately.

"You do have to be organised at the end of your funding, which is difficult when you're concentrating on writing up, but I found that it gave me a good incentive to finish on time."

 

 

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