UK PhDs doing fieldwork ‘need blanket funding extensions’

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A learned society has called on the UK’s public research funder to offer all PhD students whose fieldwork has been disrupted by the pandemic extra money to extend their projects.

Simone Abram, chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists, said “at a minimum” there should be blanket funding extensions for such students because of the problems caused by Covid travel restrictions around the world.

Last month, UK Research and Innovation ruled out widespread extensions for doctoral students, saying that candidates should instead look to “adapt and adjust” their projects.

UKRI has made an extra £19 million available to help some students, but it emphasised that this should be targeted at those in their final year or with “ongoing support needs” such as a long-term illness.

The decision sparked anger in the UK’s PhD community, with many in the middle years of doctoral programmes saying that they face having to completely water down projects or attempt to finish without funding. Those whose projects rely on fieldwork, which often has to take place overseas, say that they have been completely unable to carry out what is in most cases “essential” work.

An open letter to UKRI from PhD students in anthropology, signed by several hundred people, says that the latest policy “has failed all PhD researchers, especially those in their fieldwork years”.

“Without ethnographic fieldwork data, anthropology PhD researchers cannot write their theses, and therefore cannot produce the innovative research for which the UKRI has funded them,” the letter says. “No amount of ‘adaptation’, ‘adjustment’ or ‘change of approach’, as per your recommendations, will make this possible without substantial funded extensions.”

Professor Abram, professor of anthropology at Durham University, said that the ASA was supporting the open letter and appealing directly to UKRI on the issue. In addition to delays, travel barriers had meant “projects may have to be completely reconceptualised, and all arrangements for travel, accommodation, visas, cooperation with research participants or facilitators have been disrupted”.

“How can doctoral students be expected to do all this extra work without financial support?” she asked.

Alastair Lomas, an anthropology PhD student at the University of Manchester who is one of those behind the open letter, said that in his case, plans to travel to Japan to conduct essential immersive fieldwork were likely to end up being delayed by at least a year.

“UKRI’s decision not to offer funded extensions has left me with extremely limited choices,” he said, adding that he was also “very angry at UKRI for taking until mid-November to announce its position on mid-year PhDs, then asking us to do the impossible”.

Jennifer Moore, another PhD student in the discipline at Manchester who has helped organise the campaign, said the “insurmountable hurdle” she faced of not being able to carry out fieldwork in Africa had forced her to pause her stipend payments and struggle to look for work.

“To be told that the impact of the pandemic, not just on my research but also my mental health, is not being factored into decision-making regarding extensions is a huge slap in the face,” she said.

A spokeswoman for UKRI, which supports about a quarter of all PhD students in the country, said that it had made available £60 million in total to support PhD students this year, including extensions offered to final-year students back in the spring.

“This is not enough to fund extensions for all students, and we know that needs vary greatly across the community,” she added, which was why the extra funding could “support extensions for the students least able to adapt their projects for whatever reason”.

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