Why are we funding science PhDs?

24 January 2008

Funding bodies such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), determine to some extent the criteria under which postgraduate students are required to complete their studies. Up to 75% of humanities PhD students funded by the AHRC go on to find a job in research. Unlike humanities, I doubt that 75% of current science PhD graduates will remain in academia, let alone find permanent posts. Here, I aim to both highlight problems in the current system and provide a starting point for a rethink of how the funding of scientific, in particular, biomedical postgraduate training is undertaken.

I am a current PhD student, just over three years in, studying Pathology at the University of Cambridge. I have been fortunate that, despite my advancing years (I am now 37), the Medical Research Council (MRC) has provided me with a tax-free stipend of £12k a year to enable me to further my education. I have been equally fortunate to work with talented fellow PhD students, all of which I consider to be more than equipped to pursue careers in research. Why then, do I appear to be the only one interested in doing so?

Money must be a big factor. Recently qualified colleagues are now working, or intend to, in scientific regulatory affairs or patent attorney offices, they are training as doctors (via fast-track medical courses) or are returning to medical careers that they have interrupted to undertake a PhD. The latter group, of course, are central to the multidisciplinary nature of medical research and are expected to leave and facilitate subsequent collaborations between research and medicine. However, although I appreciate that everyone is free to pursue their own career paths, I do feel that the funding system would benefit from a rethink in the way studentships are awarded, particularly in encouraging those that are given funding to remain in research once they graduate, thus providing them with a platform to pursue an academic career. This must include some sort of financial incentive. This could perhaps be in the form of a guaranteed research position upon qualification, even if this is short-term in nature. This would allow projects to be completed and articles written, thereby enhancing job prospects. Those electing not to take up this offer might be required to pay back some or all of their stipend, in a similar manner to that currently being employed in the student loan system. Alternatively, the government might consider including scientists in the “key-worker” bracket, thus making a career in science.

Another, related factor is job security. Scientific research is ‘renowned’ for relatively short contracts (three years or less) and I feel this negatively influences the perception postgraduate students have when they consider life after their PhD. Of course, they are many opportunities in the private sector, including large biotech companies. However, many students are unaware of the career development paths that funding bodies like the MRC provide, thus enabling them to remain in a research environment whilst retaining longer-term career prospects.

The current situation is, in my opinion, ineffective at both supplying and encouraging the next generation of scientists to pursue a career in research. Far too many students see a PhD as a stepping stone to highly paid alternative careers and it is difficult to justify the use of public money, from which bodies like the MRC are funded, to benefit the individual rather than the general tax-paying public. Whilst there is no magic bullet that can be used to solve the loss of, it must be said, expensively trained researchers to other disciplines following their postgraduate biomedical training, a combination of financial and career incentives must be considered to address the situation.