Science PhD - who needs it?

April 7, 2000

Three reports highlight the low morale of science research students. Natasha Loder spoke to broke postgrads struggling to stay motivated.

Annie Dugdale is a biology research student from the University of Glasgow. Money is tight, so to make ends meet she sells ice creams during her holidays. For this work, she is paid Pounds 3.90 an hour.

Research students are not supposed to have other jobs - so we cannot use Annie's real name - but with many young men and women starting PhDs carrying large educational debts, for many, paid work on the side is a necessity. They have to cope for three years on a subsistence-level pay - often with a fourth year on nothing at all. But surely it will all be worth it at the end?

Three new reports - two from the charitable Wellcome Trust and one from pressure group Save British Science - paint a depressing picture of the choices academia offers to research students today. At nearly all stages the pay is pitiful, the career structure non-existent, and the best talent is de-motivated and unexcited at the prospects an academic career offers.

Morale is low despite government research council grant increases. Dugdale's Pounds 800 increase took her pay to Pounds 6,500 a year but it was still around half the sum the Wellcome trust pays its students.

Mandy Crow has just finished her PhD at Cambridge University on Pounds 5,500 a year. An MSc and a PhD have left her Pounds 10,000 in debt. She coped during her PhD by working in a shop for two months. She will start a postdoctorate soon at Oxford University, and she can only hope that she will be able to save enough to clear her debts by the end of her three-year contract.

Rachel Thorman, a soil scientist from the University of Edinburgh, took part in a recent focus group on science education (see box left). She talks enthusiastically about her subject but describes her salary as "a pittance". "Sometimes I just think, 'what am I doing this for'? I'd love to stay in but I don't think I'm going to. I'm sick of having no money."

One of Thorman's friends with a first-class degree left for the same reason, and another could not consider doing a PhD because "her debts were too large".

By contrast, Wendy Burgess, who was a Wellcome Trust-funded research student, says her larger salary helped motivate her. "It helped us get used to the long hours and work weekends. I developed a work ethic."

Her PhD netted her eight publications, though the trust average is closer to three per student. Burgess went on to take up a well-funded trust postdoctorate and then moved to a job in industry.

One Wellcome Trust report, based on exit polls from students, says trust students are grateful for the higher pay - a tax-free stipend of about Pounds 12,000 - but feel guilty that other students have to live on so little.

But the trust postgraduates are also very negative about their prospects in academia, and many face a pay cut when taking up their first postdoctorate.

Patricia Chisholm, scientific programme manager for Wellcome Trust PhDs, hopes that the culture will change, but warns of "signs of alarm" within the system. "You can't pay this little without something giving."

The trust's research shows that both well-paid and badly paid research students will tell you the same thing - they do not want to spend their lives applying for grants, or to live with the insecurity of going from contract to contract on poor salaries.

And they do not aspire to being a lecturer because their supervisors are overworked and are tied up with mountains of administration and teaching.

"I don't want to be a lecturer, and that's the only way to get a permanent position," says one trust student. "I'm better at other things, and the money is rubbish," says another.

So if there is such considerable disillusionment among well-paid students, then what hope is there for the rest?

Trust students, at least, will vote with their feet, says Chisholm.

"We are talking about a set of students with options. If they don't see a future, they leave," she says.

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