Project studentships say ‘goodbye’

Rather horribly for those of us who are synthetic organic chemists, the EPSRC have announced they are about to cut the number of PhD studenthips they fund by a massive 35 per cent, many of these coming from synthetic chemistry.

Obviously, scientists knew that funding cuts were going to have to come, but chemists are rather annoyed at what they see as an unfair targeting of their subject. So what they’ve done is taken to the streets write a rather strongly worded letter to David Cameron. Brilliant.

In a TES report the EPSRC says that it wants to protect the really high quality doctoral training it funds – such as doctoral training centres (DTCs) – by cutting traditional project studentship PhDs. What they’re saying is, it’s quality, not quantity that counts. Especially when science doctoral graduates are supposed to be the ones generating the innovations we’re going to sell to the world and revitalise our faltering economy.

In fact the EPSRC announced that they were cutting project studentships in January. Being one of these project based PhD students that the EPSRC has now decided is sub-standard, I’m struggling to keep calm on this issue! I guess I’m indignant that the EPSRC think that DTC trained people are better than traditional studentship trained people. Why do they think that?

Well, here’s a list of what DTC people get (and studentship people don’t usually) from the Bristol chemical synthesis DTC website:

  1. Four years of funding (vs. a usual 3.25), the first of which is a set of three short ‘research broadening sabbaticals’ in various academic labs.
  2. Tailored lectures, workshops, brain-storming sessions and general attention from academic staff.
  3. Journal club.
  4. Weekly problem sessions carried out as a small group.
  5. All this is done in a small group of 10 or students working together constantly.

Bearing in mind that DTC training costs twice as much per place than a standard PhD project this seems odd. You’ve got about 20% more time to fund than a standard PhD plus a bit of extra teaching. PhD students are actually supposed to get graduate lecture courses, and training from their supervisor. So in real terms I think the benefits add up to:

  1. Getting to know supervisors before choosing them.
  2. A wider understanding of practical techniques and the research in other groups.
  3. 20% extra time to do the PhD.
  4. Focused attention from academics to help professional development (problem solving, team work etc).

But to my mind, these aren’t exactly missing from the current system. Here’s what i would say to the points.

  1. Ask around, get advice, meet the supervisor once or twice. In most jobs you don’t spend six months getting to know people before you start working with them.
  2. But a PhD is all about specialising. Of course we need to be aware of other disciplines, but the whole point of a PhD is that you get good at one thing.
  3. Fair enough – that would be useful! But it alone doesn’t justify multiplying the cost of the project by two.
  4. If an academic is concerned about a student’s professional development (and they are supposed to be) then this should be standard. Journal clubs, mentoring on presentation style, problem sessions – these should all be part of how a supervisor trains a student up.

But these are just my opinions. Is there any hard evidence to suggest that DTCs are as good as the EPSRC think? I contacted the EPSRC to ask. Victoria McGuire from their press office sent me a reply and a page of links to resources. Some of what she sent was quite anecdotal [1] but there was also some evidence [2]. A Welcome trust report [3] on a DTC pilot project carried out in 2007 for example found that DTC students had published twice as many peer reviewed papers as students from the same supervisor who had done traditional PhDs. The same was true for students who were accepted onto the DTC (so were ‘good enough’ for it) but opted not to take their places up.

While this evidence is not full proof, it’s good to know that the EPSRC is basing its decisions on some sort of analysis. Some have claimed recently that this is not the case, saying that the people making the decisions are trained in strategic management, and so don’t understand the science.

It seems to me the EPSRC is doing a pretty decent job of decision making based on what the country needs to get from the science PhDs we fund. However, it’s made me feel quite depressed about academia as a whole. It seems quite sad that we have to pay twice as much for our studentships to get staff to focus on training up their students. It would be nice to think that supervisors cared enough about their students professional development to initiate the sort of training listed above automatically. Some do I suppose.

My suggestion to the EPSRC: Set guidelines for supervisors on how to help their students develop into good scientists. If they don’t follow them, reduce their research funding. That way we’ll get well trained postgrads and poor academics will gradually get rooted out too.


[1] I was quite surprised to read what was basically a set of interviews with students from DTC centres in this article. What the students think is not necessarily true. N. Rawlins et al., Trends in Neurosci., 2000, 23, 280 – 284.

[2] Report of a Review of the EPSRC Engineering Doctorate Centres, March 2007. Link

[3] Time well spent: The four-year PhD neuroscience programme at UCL, 2007. Welcome trust report

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One Response to Project studentships say ‘goodbye’

  1. Pingback: CDTs: where’s the evidence? | bench twentyone

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