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 Wellcome Trust picks and pays PhD stars from an elite set of institutions. Martin Ince reports
Forget the oppressed and ignored graduate student of yesteryear. At the Wellcome Trust these folk are on the way to becoming the Pounds 100,000 man or woman.
Patricia Chisholm, Wellcome's scientific programme manager for basic and veterinary sciences, says that the trust's established tradition of paying PhD students well is only part of the story.
She says: "Wellcome is an elite institution and we only want to support high-class people. We are also a research organisation, not an educational one, and our focus is on producing researchers."
In 1987 Wellcome began paying the PhD students it supports a premium over the rate paid by the Medical Research Council, the biggest funder of biomedical PhDs. This gap still exists with Wellcome people on about Pounds 12,100 outside London and Pounds 13,500 a year in the capital. The MRC's are on about Pounds 9,600 in London and Pounds 7,300 outside, with people supported by other research councils even less well off. But Dr Chisholm is careful not to criticise what the MRC does. In 1996-97, the MRC made 0 new PhD awards per year compared with under 100 for Wellcome. The comparison she favours is with the research assistants funded by Wellcome, who are on the same wage and most of whom are also registered for doctorates. "Our point is that doing a PhD is a job, and a very difficult one at the level at which we are operating. People should not have to be in penury while they do it."
But Dr Chisholm points out that salaries are only the start of the story. Indeed, Wellcome pays a small number of vets and medical scientists even more to do PhDs, since without something even closer to a living wage they would never enter research. The trust regards the students it funds as part of its policy of building up top biomedical research. In this spirit, it now places them only in centres where there are Wellcome programme grants or other long-term awards, sometimes running into millions of pounds. This means that they are in a properly resourced setting with a good training environment. Over half are in departments rated 5 or 5* in the research assessment exercise and 468 of the 533 now in the system are in the top ten institutions supported by Wellcome, which absorb the bulk of its awards.
"When centres apply for a studentship," says Dr Chisholm, "we insist on a formal training programme as part of the application. But we like to know that students will be in a place where there is an inherent research culture. Is it a place which a leading US researcher on a trip to Europe will visit to give a seminar?" Dr Chisholm says that an individual research proposal is very hard to assess, but it is simpler to tell whether a PhD student is going somewhere where good long-term research is going on and where many heavily-reviewed and assessed projects are active. The result is that the Wellcome PhD students tend to be in a small number of "ivy league" institutions which are also attractive to other big funders. In her view, this ivy league has already emerged and Wellcome is happy to deal with its members. Just as Wellcome is not there to do the MRC's job, she says, it is not there to do the funding council's either - it can concentrate resources to buy the best research without taking a view on the future of the university system as a whole.
The final stage in Wellcome's support for its PhD students is one that chimes with this approach by enhancing the resources of the departments Wellcome supports. From October 1997, Wellcome is paying the real support costs of the students it pays for, including their chemicals and other materials. The less than adequate Pounds 4,000 a year per head it was handing over before has been replaced by a larger sum which the department has to justify. Because of its support of research assistants and others, Dr Chisholm points out, Wellcome already knows a lot about the cost of supporting researchers and expects a figure in the region of Pounds 10,000-12,000 per year. The research councils pay Pounds 1,000.
She reckons that paying people for three years, supporting their research costs and paying other bills means that some three-year PhD students are costing Wellcome Pounds 80,000 a head.
And there is a further twist. In 1995 the trust started a pilot project for students to be funded for four years rather than three. In the first year the student can work at several laboratories within the institution on a training basis before committing to a particular research project. Nobody has yet graduated from this scheme, whose outcomes will be monitored closely, but entry standards are high. There are five such programmes with 100 students in total being admitted at 25 per year. These people are likely to cost Wellcome Pounds 100,000 each.
Wellcome thinks that its approach works. Surveys show that even before the system of awarding PhD students to major centres, its PhDs tended to complete, stay in research and be productive of papers. But Dr Chisholm is also sensitive to the pressures well-funded PhD students can create in a laboratory. While anyone funded by the MRC may feel bitter at working alongside somebody being paid more to do the same thing, she says that universities often like the pressure Wellcome has put on other funders to pay better. As she says: "If they say 'we could only fund half as many people if we paid as much as you', our inclination is to ask 'Why don't you think about that seriously?'"