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COVID-19 and the Uncertain Future of PhD Research in Scotland

By 11th December 2020 No Comments

Delma Childers

Lecturer in Medical Sciences
University of Aberdeen

TL;DR: Early year PhD students have had significant research disruptions due to COVID-19, but face uncertainty about future funding to make up for lost time. As the current system struggles to deliver the skills and support they need to complete their degrees, we need to rethink the consistency and standards for how we fund and train future scientists, innovators, and educators.

The public has been rightly concerned about student education and well-being during the current pandemic. However, one group of students has largely remained out of the spotlight. PhD students have had their laboratory and institutional access restricted, their studies stuck in limbo for months. Unfortunately, PhD students don’t have access to furlough or many options for blended learning. And, for many of them, their main solution to the COVID-19 disruption – a funded research extension – has been thrown into doubt.

Today’s PhD research students are the researchers and philosophers of tomorrow, and their training serves as an intensive crash course on how to become an independent scientist. The degree is rare (1% of the UK population holds a PhD) and only conferred once students prepare a body of work, a thesis, that makes a significant contribution to knowledge within their field. In the US, this process is open-ended and takes an average of 5-6 years, making festive dinners awkward when parents ask how much longer until you get a ‘real job’. UK students have 3-4 years to develop this body of work before their research funding ends. Thus, many students report working more than 40 hours per week on their research projects all while being paid a stipend that equates to less than minimum wage.

UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) is a non-departmental government organisation that funds a significant portion of the research conducted in this country. This umbrella organisation collectively funds ~25% of UK PhD students, making UKRI a major stakeholder in determining the policies that affect these students. Recently, UKRI made two decisions about their funded students:

  • First, students in their final year of research may have up to 6-months of funded extension.
  • Second, non-final year students are not automatically eligible for a funded extension.

The first decision was a welcome relief to students who could see the light at the end of the tunnel before COVID-19 ripped them out of their research. The funded extension means they will be paid while they quickly wrap up research and graduate. The alternative would mean working unpaid or giving up altogether on years of work.

However, the second decision has thickened the cloud of uncertainty hanging over most UKRI-funded students. Many students really start to understand and develop the major research questions, methods, and datasets for their project in their first and second year. What are these students to do? UKRI’s advice is that student supervisors should reorganise PhD research projects to be completed in a shorter timeframe. This is an incredibly difficult sell when most laboratories are operating with significant restrictions and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Some fields have access to extensive data collections that will allow students to go analyse someone else’s work. Other research areas are too new, small, or rely on fieldwork that simply cannot be done right now.

In comparison, several charity PhD studentship funders, including British Heart Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and Royal Society, are offering funded extensions for penultimate and final year students. Many students are also funded by universities themselves. However, extension rules vary by institution and tend to align with either UKRI policy or charity funders. These rule variations are vaguely reminiscent of the changing lockdown systems across the four nations. The lack of clarity across the board is leading to feelings of anger and frustration. Ultimately, our early year PhD students are still left grappling with how to complete their planned research programs. Students have lost significant project momentum, spending ~10% of their total study time in lockdown and having at least a further ~15% of their total project time impacted by laboratory and institutional access restrictions.

These realities leave PhD supervisors and higher education institutions with some difficult choices. Do we lower the bar, whatever that bar may be for each individual university, for the next three years to compensate for the limited body of work our students can achieve? Does lowering the bar for a PhD cheapen the degree? How will these decisions impact the future employability of our PhD students at home and abroad? And will these steps affect the recruitment of overseas students who pay premium prices for a degree?

UK PhD students are considering what their degree is worth. Some students are taking active steps to make their concerns heard. Alexander Currie is a third-year PhD student at University of Aberdeen who is funded by UKRI. He started a parliamentary petition demanding that UKRI fund extensions for all its students that is close to reaching the 10,000 signatures that would trigger a government response.

When asked how he and fellow students felt about the pressures of finishing a thesis without a funded extension, Alex said he hoped that universities would take the impact of COVID-19 on their thesis into account by instituting ‘no detriment’ policies. A ‘no detriment’ policy would make thesis composition more flexible for affected students and give a formal indication to examiners that COVID-19 impacts must be taken into account for PhD exam outcomes. Alex also had this to say: “In the end, my priority is getting done on-time with a project that I’m proud of in a way that’s affordable.”

How can we help our PhD students overcome these challenges? First, academic leaders from any career stage should ask for clear, comprehensive guidance from universities about what level of work will be required to complete a PhD thesis impacted by COVID-19. Second, we need to engage in discussions about what skillsets are most likely to be impacted by the reduction in training time. The majority of PhD students will not pursue a tenure track academic career. Rather, they will go on to lead research in industry, biotechnology, or influence policy and communications. PhD students also need enough time to gain the necessary transferable skills to be competitive in these industries. Without high quality transferable skills, UK PhD students risk losing employment opportunities and the reputation of UK higher education could be tarnished further on a global stage.

Finally, this is perhaps the time to have a more difficult discussion about whether UK PhD training and funding systems are fit for purpose. The variety in funding types and lengths (3 or 4 years) and different institutional rules for thesis requirements can be viewed by some as a strong marketplace for students to pick and choose their research projects. Student surveys suggest that our PhD students work very hard, more than a full-time working week, in fact. This makes them one of the cheapest labour forces in research, yet they are not generally entitled to staff benefits like annual leave. The pressures of lockdown had some students working even longer hours. This shift in workload was interpreted in a UKRI commissioned report as increased productivity, but it comes at a significant risk for burnout. If PhD training programs are struggling to provide the necessary skills and tools for PhD students to be competitive in the real world, especially in light of COVID-19 disruptions, then we need to review our expectations for PhD students and how we fund them. The least we can do to provide a significant benefit to our students is to be clear about what a PhD means, what support is available when things go wrong, and treat our students like the valued colleagues they are and are training to become.

This year has demonstrated the amazing power and need for science to tackle problems such as COVID-19. A generation of future scientists understands that potential more than ever, but must first tackle the problem of putting food on the table before their degrees.