Only the rich and gifted need apply

February 20, 1998

Low pay and the spiralling cost of first degrees means that life for PhD students is tough and is getting tougher despite some funders' efforts to abolish postgraduate poverty by paying salaries

The spiralling cost of a first degree means that soon only the wealthy or sponsored will be able to afford to do a PhD. Julia Hinde reports

The British PhD may be under threat. At least, that is what some in academe fear. With the introduction of tuition fees and the phasing out of maintenance grants, students of the future face graduating with huge debts.

The Department for Education and Employment does not expect the prospective debt burden to affect the number, quality or background of students going on to further study.

But this feeling is not shared in the community, where some say the phasing out of grants and the replacement with loans is already having an effect. Some research councils, which offer living expenses for PhD students of about Pounds 6,000 a year, are reporting difficulties recruiting good quality candidates for PhDs as some students, perhaps due to debt or the improved jobs market, have chosen employment instead.

With the introduction of fees and the removal of grants, there are many who feel debt will mount and more potential researchers will instead choose well-paid jobs.

So will huge debts preclude all but the wealthiest from doing PhDs? That is certainly the view of today's PhD students who, it appears, are finding finances tough enough as it is.

Angie Austin is in her second year of a full-time PhD at Newcastle University. A lack of money means that the 23-year-old is considering quitting research for a well-paid job.

"As an undergraduate I accumulated debts of about Pounds 2,500. On top of that I have so far an overdraft of about Pounds 1,000 while doing my PhD," she says.

"It makes me frustrated. I got engaged at new year. I am looking to pay for a wedding and I want to spend a bit of time with my fiance - a weekend away - but we can't afford it. It's very difficult from that point of view. I go out about once a term."

Austin is sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for her PhD in biotechnology. She receives about Pounds 5,500 a year which pays accommodation and living expenses. Her fiance, also doing an EPSRC-sponsored PhD at Newcastle, is working four nights a week in a hotel to raise extra cash.

"It's just to get enough money to survive," she explains.

"I went into the PhD quite readily. As an undergraduate I got Pounds 400 from the local education authority every term, so Pounds 5,000 seemed a lot. But when it comes down to it, it's not. Some of my friends are earning Pounds 18,000 a year.

"What's worse is the department itself doesn't have enough money to buy the equipment and chemicals we need. You are always having to ask, can I do that experiment, do we have the money, do I have to wait until next month to do the experiment? I am here to do research, yet this happens quite often."

She is certain that increased undergraduate debt would put many students off PhDs. "It's probably four extra years of accruing debts until you get a decent job, I am sure it will put many students off."

"I am just surviving," explains Debbie (not her real name), a 24-year-old social science postgraduate at Lancaster University. In order to pay rent and for food, and to pay back debts already accrued while studying, the final-year student works nine hours a week on a superstore checkout. She has previously worked for up to 30 hours a week waitressing during term time.

"I have struggled juggling work and my PhD, but I had to in order to survive," she says. "I did not think research was all waiting on tables." She fears that the introduction of tuition fees and the phasing out of grants will make it almost impossible for many students in the humanities and social sciences to do research.

"In the social sciences the normal route in is via a masters course. It's very competitive to get funding for a masters. One person on my course of 20 did. I got a 2:1 for my undergraduate degree and could not. I took a career development loan of Pounds 4,000. That was on top of the three full student loans, totalling Pounds 2,100, and the Pounds 700 overdraft I had as an undergraduate. I then won a studentship to do a PhD which means I get Pounds 5,000 a year and my fees are paid by the university," she says. "But that doesn't go far when you are paying back a career development loan at Pounds 100 a month. I have an overdraft of Pounds 1,000, despite working.

"I don't understand how students are in the future going to be able to go to further study. It's bad enough now - I am just surviving. I don't think the bank would have given me a career development loan with debts any greater than I had. As it was they were very against it.

"I don't think any student in my situation, that is to say without financial backing, could do further study. If you won the lottery you might be able to."

Matthew Leney, a third-year PhD student at Nottingham University, finished his degree Pounds 800 in debt. "I probably would not have done a PhD if the debt had been greater," he says. "It would have just been another pressure which would not have helped."

Leney, 25, considers himself quite fortunate. As well as a grant from EPSRC, he is sponsored by industry. Mining giant Rio Tinto pays him Pounds 2,200 a year, and his EPSRC grant is about Pounds 7,000 annually. He worked for Rio Tinto for several months earlier this year which helped his finances, while he has been able to make some extra money from demonstrating in the university laboratories. He will finish his PhD this year having run up no more debt.

He says: "My lifestyle as a postgraduate has not changed much from when I was an undergraduate. Friends who went into jobs using chemical engineering started on about Pounds 16,000 - they are now buying houses. They have a lot more to spend - I am not looking at these kind of things. I can't afford a car, so I take the train. But I am not starving to death. It's not been so bad.

"If there had been more financial obstacles in the way, I would still be in the nursing home wiping bottoms," says single mother Ruth Chandler, who is in the second year of her PhD on postmodernism.

Chandler, 33, was expelled from school at 16. "I was 28 when I started again in education," she says. "I had been doing care assistant jobs when I decided to do an access course. I then got a maintenance grant and went to Chichester Institute of Higher Education, which is part of Southampton University, and graduated with a first in history.

"I also came out with three student loans, a bank loan of Pounds 1,500 and a credit card bill of Pounds 900. My bank doesn't recognise I am still a student and wants it all back."

Chandler wanted to do an MA next but decided a career development loan was out of the question. "They'd have wanted me to start paying it back immediately, but I wanted to carry on to a PhD," she says. "In the end the college waived the fee for me to do an MPhil/PhD part time."

As well as studying for her PhD last year, Chandler also did a teacher training course in the hope that this year she will be able to earn extra money to support her studies by teaching.

"I have a friend who has three part-time jobs to support his research," she adds. "Basically there is no way I would have got this far if I had to pay tuition fees or I didn't have a grant as an undergraduate."

There can be no cutting corners for one PhD student who is researching cheating for her doctorate. Penny Armstead, 26, is self-funding her part-time PhD in psychology at Plymouth University. She is in her fourth year and says she has thought of quitting.

"I didn't have debts when I graduated," she explains. "My parents supported me a great deal. I still don't have debts - but that's because I refuse to.

"The first day of my PhD I became a secondary school teacher, teaching psychology A level. That was 12 hours a week for which I earned Pounds 5,000 a year. The thing I found hardest was the teaching preparation - it was the first time it had been taught at the school. On top of that I was doing a teaching diploma and part-time teaching at the university and trying to do a PhD. The pay was rubbish but it got me through."

After two years of teaching, Penny swapped the school job for work as a research assistant. She also worked as a secretary at the university. "I earned about Pounds 6,000 as a research assistant and Pounds 2,000 with the secretarial work," she says. "I was being taxed even though I earned less than someone who got a research grant.

"Fitting in the academic work is very hard. I have the best tutor in the world. She convinces me that whatever I do is better than nothing. I have thought about giving up a lot. I am probably a third of the way through. I find that very demoralising."

Since October, Armstead has swapped her two jobs for an associate lecturer post at the university. "It's an absolute Godsend," she says. "It's 14 hours a week for Pounds 11,000 and my fees are waived. It means I can do my research.

"I have been lucky in that my parents have helped me if I get stuck financially. There are times when I have tried to make it on my own, but there's no way. I would not have been able to do this without them.

"Doing a PhD part time is really hard. It takes a lot longer than six years. You have to do any work that comes your way. But having said that I would do it again."

"I don't think I would have carried on to do research had I graduated with vast undergraduate debts. I think I would have thought of getting a job first and then coming back. I know people who have done that. But they never go back to research," says Kerry Knight, who is close to completing a genetics PhD at Cambridge University.

She has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council with a studentship of about Pounds 4,900 a year. Had she gone straight into industry she could now have expected to be earning about Pounds 25,000 to Pounds 30,000.

"It doesn't bother me," she says. "I knew it would happen. Pounds 4,900 is not too bad and the college system helps. You can get cheap rooms through college and some money through the department.

"I have not been on holiday since I have been here - but I guess you know that's what is going to happen. You have a lot of undergraduates here who are well off and go skiing in the holidays - but I know that in a few years' time that will be me.

"I have no regrets. I have never had a well paid job with lots of money, so I don't miss it."

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees fears many excellent students will be put off PhDs. "I think there are two deterrents facing students today which are greater than in my day," he says. "These are the prospects of debt and diminishing returns for those who persist in academia. Other professions have greatly improved their standing over the years, but the academic system has done the reverse."

He adds: "I think there is some risk the academic community will become bi-modal. There will be a few students who can't imagine doing anything else, and those who are not ambitious and who are content with the situation as it is. We will lose the others who could have been outstanding researchers but could also get satisfaction from another sphere. I was a bit uncertain when I started (in academia).

"Student debt is a disincentive. The Wellcome Trust offers considerably higher stipends. I think there is a substantial case for the research councils to increase their stipends in line with that."

Chemistry Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto doubts he would have done a PhD if he was a student at the end of the 1990s.

"In the 1960s everyone who did a PhD got a job," says Sir Harry, a professor at Sussex. "The 1960s were a different time. I wanted to stay at university to spend another three years playing tennis."

He adds: "Those who have the talent to do chemistry probably have the talent to do other things. Fifty per cent of people you would like to have for PhDs are probably those who have options to do other things. Some of them will say 'why should I do a PhD, why should I put another millstone around my neck?' I would have done. I had other job offers. I would probably have done graphics and would have been world famous and rich. I am quite sure I would not have done science."

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