The Missing Light at the End of the PhD Tunnel

I’ve been meaning to write some thoughts on dealing with the end of the PhD for a while. Not on how hard writing the thesis can be –writing has mostly been the best part for me – but on how the current funding structure of PhDs in the UK can leave students vulnerable and trigger a loop of anxiety, stress and financial trouble.

This post was triggered by a piece in the Working Life section of a Science issue from April which talks about how progress in the PhD happens in alternating stages of growth and stagnation. The article does a good job in articulating the cyclical nature of research and how time laying low to digest things can be as important as periods of churning out papers, data, or experiments. But what really struck me was the time frame in which the author went through this:

“The lag phase continued for my first few semesters of grad school, as I continued to adjust to the transition from China to the United States and from undergraduate training to graduate research.”

First few semesters? For someone doing a PhD in the UK, this is an unaffordable luxury. Having a few months of digestion would have been a huge privilege. Scientifically, such periods are essential as they helps mature and sharpen ideas. But the key issue preventing this here is not scientific, but monetary: with studentships typically lasting three years, a couple of down terms and you are in trouble to finish within your funding period. I remember being very confused when I talked about my “three-year PhD.” People would often say to me, “well, it will take you more than that. Most people take three and a half to four years, but don’t worry!” leaving me to wonder why I was then only being funded for three years.

The consequences of this gap are very serious, but only arise near the end – exactly the period when the tension and pressure are at their highest. Many students end up having to complete the PhD without a stipend and need to use personal savings or family support to see themselves through that last stretch. Not to mention there are sometimes additional continuation fees to be paid for. Many students end up incurring a lot debt which can aggravate emotional well-being and mental health even more. These problems are compounded by the emotional challenges and the often demoralising process of job hunting, assuming you’ve decided where to take your life and career by this point. The end of PhD is a pretty turbulent ride that involves plenty of soul searching which, combined with all these stressors, provide the perfect formula for anxiety to build up. The financial trauma is likely to add to concerns and push people away from science in the long run – the academic/postdoctoral track does not inspire much monetary stability. .

For those who decide to continue in academia, the situation puts them at a disadvantage also when it comes to applying for academic jobs. Not only must they recover from the emotional and financial turbulence, students funded for 3 years also need to compete against others who had longer PhDs with more stable funding. How can it be that you are expected to produce the same amount or level of work to those but in one year less?

But the lack of funding at the end of the PhD is also problematic for PIs: manuscripts often get left behind by students after they leave the lab and it can be months until they get published. In many cases, 3 years isn’t enough time to learn the methods and generate data for a publication, so projects may get side-lined as no one in the lab can take over. Ultimately, everyone suffers.

The fact that some PhD funding programs in the UK provide support for 4 years demonstrates the problem is acknowledged. Still, there are currently very little routes to remedy the shortage and most students remain at the mercy of their doctoral PIs. If you are lucky, your supervisor may have some spare grant money and, if you are extra lucky (or have a responsible boss), you may get support right up to the end. But at a time of increased financial strain in research grants, securing money from your supervisor may require a lot of negotiating and compromise, as well as some degree of kindness and generosity from them.

What are the alternatives? As far as I know, almost none – and we would love to get input on this if anyone knows of opportunities so we can provide links to those resources for others. In the biomedical sciences at least, the Wellcome Trust offers supplementary funding in some cases to extend student’s stipends (though apparently this is almost unheard of) and some MRC funded students can apply for “Transition to First Postdoc” grants of up to six months – yes, technically not for the PhD but what else is one to do? Some students may get access to hardship funds from their universities but in many cases that is only available when the damage has already been done.

During the first year PhD transfer (UK equivalent of the qualifier), my examiners mentioned the funding gap and said I should ask my supervisors about it as “it is not fair some get more time/money”. I asked but nothing came of it and I was determined to finish within the three years. For me, this looks like it will almost be possible – but I know I’m lucky. Other students face a much tougher time and have been self-funding for almost a whole year now, kept hanging by supervisors’ promises of digging out a pot of money from a magic hat.

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A linguist in a previous life, now doing a PhD in neuroscience and genetics when not stressing over the future in academia and talking about feelings.

One thought on “The Missing Light at the End of the PhD Tunnel

  1. Luiz says:

    Just thought I’d expand on this as it had been in the back of my mind for a while and I failed to include it in the original post.

    One logical possibility for overcoming the funding problem is by giving out *less* PhD studentships but ensuring those who are offered one are given the support to complete their work without the financial pressure. This would also reduce, only marginally, the obvious discrepancy between PhD-faculty ratios that makes getting an academic job so stressful and difficult (and rare?).

    I can hear people already saying that this will make students work less hard as they have more time and money which would be an absurd claim given the dedicated and invested nature of the vast majority of those who decide to do a PhD (obviously, there are always exceptions).

    One realistic side effect, which I assume would be a natural barrier to this, is that PIs would have fewer students working in their labs and would thus be understaffed – and produce less data, publish less papers and receive less grants. It is possible but it may well mean that better research is conducted and there is better support to those involved – eventually reducing the risk of damaging one’s well-being beyond the financial domain.

    It would be interesting to hear the opinion of others, particularly those at University management level, make of this.

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