PhDs say no to poor prospects

July 6, 2001

It is getting harder to recruit doctoral students and three years of funding is not enough, according to PhD supervisors. Almost half of those who responded to a Wellcome Trust survey said that it was more difficult to recruit PhD students now than five years ago. Low pay and poor prospects were the main reasons given.

Supervisors complained that undergraduate degrees were proving increasingly inadequate preparation for research. Many supported Wellcome's new four-year programme and the research councils' MRes programme, which gives students a year of research experience before embarking on a three-year project.

They also felt that the standard three years of funding and pressure from universities to complete within this time did not reflect the true nature of research that does not stick to rigid timescales.

Almost all supervisors described their role as having a training focus, with a combination of shaping the research by providing technical and research support and making the student an independent researcher.

A fifth of respondents felt that PhDs should train students for a wide range of careers, although the majority believed they trained students for careers in scientific (though not specifically academic) jobs.

On average, supervisors spent two-thirds of their time on research, a quarter on administration and a tenth on teaching.

Of 172 supervisors from more than 30 higher education institutions who responded, almost three-quarters were responsible for up to three students and one in ten was supervising six or more.

The research follows last year's Wellcome study of PhD students' perspectives and career paths. Publication coincides with a Wellcome conference this week, where senior academics and representatives from biomedical organisations and industry are discussing the future of PhD programmes.

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